Debating: curricular or co-curricular?

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Some teachers I meet express the idea that debating belongs in a debating society, run after school and primarily aimed at gifted students. Others have embraced the idea of debate as a teaching tool but resist the notion of a debating club or debating competitions, often because they see them as something for private schools only.

The truth of course is that every school should embed debating in their curriculum and every school should have a co-curricular debate club.

The analogy I like to use is of Physical Education. Most of us are on board with the idea that PE should be compulsory for all. Some students will love it, some will dread it, but all will benefit from the health and social skills it brings. Likewise, some students will sit up straighter on debate day while others try to slump unnoticed under their desks. But like it or loathe it, all students will reap the rewards of being able to express themselves.  And like physical activity can channel aggression, the ability to make yourself heard and understood can lessen frustration and provide a non-physical option to resolve conflict. And debating, like sports, can provide an alternative forum for students who find formal writing challenging, to excel. The Noisy Classroom has (unsurprisingly) the classroom as it’s main focus.

But as well as every student benefiting from some weekly PE, some will thrive on more. The football and netball teams, house swimming competitions and county athletics allow those with talent and enthusiasm to shine. Some pupils will love debating. Given the chance, they will flourish as they present speeches in front of their peers and eventually in competition against other schools. For some, debating can be life-changing: providing the aspiration and motivation to achieve the top grades, apply for the top universities and enter competitive careers such as law.

When the English-Speaking Union set up the London Debate Challenge in 2002, it did not take long for state school students from the programme in Hackney and Hounslow to make it on to the English national schools’ debating team, an institution traditionally dominated by independent schools. All state schools should aspire to provide the opportunities for co-curricular and competitive debate which have long been established in the private sector.

So when auditing your school provision, make sure there are some debating opportunities for all and an avenue for the most committed and able to take it further.

Debbie Newman
Director, The Noisy Classroom
(And one of those students whose life was changed when I was bitten by the Debating bug…)

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