No question about benefits of debate

Learning how to debate has many advantages. Picture: TSPL
Learning how to debate has many advantages. Picture: TSPL
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DEBATING teaches many skills, says Heather McKendrick

A TEAM from Craigmount High School in Edinburgh was this month crowned 2014 champions in the Donald Dewar Memorial Debating Tournament, having successfully argued for the motion ‘‘This House believes that historic debt between Commonwealth countries should be written off’’.

Craigmount – joined in the final by Douglas Academy, Milngavie; Glenalmond Academy, Perthshire and Trinity High School, Renfrew – was praised by the judges for its well-researched arguments and use of evidence to support its views.

Now into its 16th year, the Law Society of Scotland’s Donald Dewar Memorial Debating Tournament is the largest schools debating tournament in Scotland, and we are delighted that each year pupils and schools that are new to debating become involved in this tournament. Many new teams reach the final stages of the tournament, and in the case of Braes High School a couple of years ago, win it outright in their first year of entering.

The tournament is one of the key outreach projects we run at the Law Society, and for many pupils it has become an important part of their extracurricular calendar. Becoming involved in debating teaches pupils a number of skills – the obvious ones being research, developing arguments, using evidence and being able to think on their feet.

These skills are particularly put to the test in our semi-finals, when the pupils have just one hour after hearing the motion to put together their arguments, with no access to computers and textbooks. The quality of the debates during the semi-finals is astonishingly high, especially when you consider the challenges of the short preparation debate.

Debating – particularly in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament for the final – also hugely helps pupils develop their presentation skills. They are debating and presenting their arguments in front of an audience of hundreds, but if our recent finalists were fazed about competing in such circumstances, and in such a prestigious venue, they hid it extremely well. All four teams spoke clearly and fluently and articulated their arguments with great confidence.

During the debate, there is the opportunity for pupils from the floor to ask questions or make speeches while the finalists write their reply speeches. This is a great chance for pupils from a number of schools to contribute to the debate and gives them a flavour as to what it’s like to debate in the chamber, and indeed, many of the floor debaters go on to be successful in the tournament.

With such a focus on competition for university places, and boosting CVs from what seems like a younger and younger age, you may be forgiven for thinking that the main reason these schools debaters join the debating team is to help them stand out in UCAS applications.

However, when talking to this year’s finalists, one of the key reasons they entered the tournament was the social side – being involved in a hobby like debating allows them to make friends from different year groups and classes, often meet people at different schools and in many cases, the chance to travel elsewhere to compete in tournaments.

Many of the pupils who spoke in the final this month will be heading to university after the summer break, and being part of the debating team will have gone a long way to give them the tools not only to develop their research skills but also the confidence to make new friends their new surroundings.

My school didn’t have a debating club when I was a pupil there, and I am quite envious of the pupils who do get involved in the competition. Their ability to speak confidently in public and to challenge others on their views in a constructive and respectful manner are two key skills that they will find serve them well throughout life. Not for them the huge nerves of presenting to their classmates, or perhaps in a work situation, having procrastinated over public speaking for a number of years. They will likely glide through situations others may find challenging and difficult, having years of experience.

As Team Debate at the Law Society gears up to plan the 2014-2015 tournament, which kicks off in November, I hope more new schools and pupils decide to take up debating. Regardless of your future career intentions, you are likely to get so much out of being involved with debating, both on a personal level and socially. And you might just win!

• Heather McKendrick is careers and outreach manager, education and training policy, the Law Society of Scotland. To find out more about the Donald Dewar Memorial Debating Tournament please email


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