Using debate and active learning to compare parliamentary procedure in Westminster, Scotland and Germany

A version of this article by Harold Raitt, Noisy Classroom trainer and webmaster, originally appeared in the Association for Citizenship Teaching‘s Teaching Citizenship magazine in summer 2012. The short scheme of work at the bottom of this page requires, as a prerequisite for the whole class, expererience of using the debate model outlined in Debbie Newman’s article for the same issue.

This article and scheme of work is © Harold Raitt, 2012.

Contents of this page

  • Article: Parliamentary debate in different countries
  • Short scheme of work: Active comparison of debates in Westminster, Edinburgh and Berlin, with an optional lesson on the role of the media

Parliamentary debate in different countries

There are many different ways of holding a debate. The relatively recent use of formal debating as a means of core curriculum delivery developed out of the UK’s strong tradition of extra-curricular debate, itself modeled on university societies such as the Oxford Union (established in 1823) which was, in turn, directly inspired by the then two-party parliamentary system and its oppositional politics between the Whigs and Tories.

A two-sided ‘Proposition v. Opposition’ format has therefore developed as standard. But, just as the House of Commons has adapted its seating arrangements to permit the inclusion of a major third party, educational debate formats don’t have to be limited to a simple two-team affair. The standard format for university debate competitions in the UK is known as the ‘British Parliamentary’ (BP) format and consists of a total of four teams, two on each side. Chiming well with the current situation at Westminster, both sides can be seen as a form of uneasy coalition; in the case of BP, the second team on each side is not allowed to contradict its predecessor, but as competitive BP debates rank teams in order from 1 to 4, they are required to outdo them by presenting ‘extensions’ to their side’s case which show them to be the better team.

BP debates are almost invariably presented with both teams facing off against each other down the two sides of a long table; but while Westminster may often be called the ‘mother of all parliaments’, the majority of modern parliaments since the French revolution have adopted a semi-circular format for debate. This is not necessarily correlated with the number of parties in a given polity: Canada (which is one of a number of Commonwealth countries which retains a Westminster-style layout) has had significant third and fourth parties over the past century. The USA is dominated by Democrats and Republicans, but has semi-circular layouts in both the Senate and House of Representatives (although, of course, the Founding Fathers had tried to establish the USA as a non-party-political system).

However, a semi-circular debating arrangement is particularly well-suited to multi-party politics. When populated by the parties’ representatives, it acts like an ever-present pie chart, reminding members and observers of who holds the largest mandate to govern and, in countries where coalitions are a standard outcome of elections, which parties are having to work together to create a majority.

Germany’s long tradition of multi-party politics is, perhaps, responsible for its university debaters developing a format called Offene Parlamentarische Debatte (‘Open Parliamentary Debate’). In this format, formal set speech lengths are also allocated to ‘Freie Redner’ (‘free speakers’) who can choose to agree with either the Proposition or Opposition, or to present a third point of view.

Given the often unruly conduct of debates in the House of Commons, one might wonder whether the spatial stand-off between the Government and Opposition benches has an effect on behaviour. Evidence to the contrary can be found on YouTube; type in ‘Fight in Parliament’ and you’ll come across lots of amusing videos of brawls in Russia or Pakistan that go way beyond the antics of even Westminster’s notorious Mace-wielder Dennis Skinner.

But there is a definite message – “we’re working against you” – that is sent out by the Westminster layout. And, in general, there’s an implicit feeling of “we’re working together towards a common goal” in semi-circular formats, particularly when a non-party-political symbol (such as the flag in the US Senate or the Mace in the Scottish Parliament) is placed at the semi-circle’s focal point.

Indeed, it was a desire to get away from the atmosphere of Westminster that led to many of the decisions behind both the architecture and the parliamentary procedure of the devolved Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh. Not all of these goals have been realised. As the late Campbell Christie, a key figure in securing devolution north of the border, said in an interview with last year, “I was on the Constitutional Steering Group set up to work on the arrangements for the new Parliament and I argued for quite a while that we should not have First Minister’s Questions and while yes, the First Minister should report to Parliament, perhaps through committees, it just demeans politics to have that yah-boo politics that simply replicates Westminster and is only of interest because they are doing battle and I just feel hugely disappointed that our committee structure, which is much better than that at Westminster, is just not having the influence we envisaged.”

Parliamentary procedures are numerous and complex, so for the following three lesson scheme of work I’ve chosen to focus mainly on the two areas mentioned by Christie in his quote; firstly, the weekly opportunity for parliamentarians to ask questions of government figureheads and, secondly, the oft-overlooked area of committees. As well as being two areas of great importance, the committee system is an area where some of the non-combative alternatives to debate can come into play.

Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons is a media circus with audiences around the world (particularly in the United States) even exceeding those in the UK. Point-scoring by opposition parties alternates with rhetorical questions from the government’s side which can be roughly paraphrased as asking “does the Prime Minister agree that both he and our party are absolutely brilliant?”. Soundbites prevail, as today’s media is reluctant to broadcast any exchange longer than about ten seconds. In Holyrood, First Minister’s Questions open with a set of exchanges between the First Minister and Opposition Leader which tend to be more focused on digging deeper into a single issue; however, over than half the session often elapses before more junior MSPs get to have their say. In the German Bundestag’s Befragung der Bundesregierung (Questions to the Federal Government), Chancellor Merkel isn’t normally even in attendance. Proceedings are opened by a 5-minute speech on a chosen issue by one of the cabinet Ministers, underlining the Principles of Individual Ministerial Responsiblility (Ressortprinzip) and of Collegiality (Kollegialprinzip) which are firmly embedded in Germany’s written constitution. Later each Wednesday afternoon, a further Fragestunde (Question Time) takes place, where oral answers to pre-submitted questions are often answered by ‘Staatssekretäre’ (Permanent Secretaries) rather than ministers.

The suggested lessons borrow concepts piecemeal from these different set-ups; seating layout, speaker order, time limits, deferring to experts and prepared v. unprepared answers are some of the differences acted out in the second lesson. Of course, this brief investigation doesn’t look at several hugely important procedural systems within a parliament. The interplay of different chamber debates and committee systems in the drafting and redrafting of detailed legislation demands serious attention; A-level students in particular should be encouraged to compare footage available on of the difference between debates on a specific bill passing through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and possibly to develop a further full-scale role play of these activities.

I hope this dramatic approach to active learning proves to be a stimulating experience for you and your students; do let me know about your discoveries, including some of the best ‘suggested formats’ from lesson three, at

Short scheme of work: Active comparison of debates in Westminster, Edinburgh and Berlin, with an optional lesson on the role of the media.

This scheme of work is dependent on sets of skills developed through embedding a formal debate model in regular classroom practice.

Main learning objectives for SoW

  • Comparing the way parliamentarians hold ministers to account in Westminster, Holyrood and the Bundestag (1.1a, d)
  • Take part in formal debates modeled on real-world parliaments (2.2a, b, c)
  • Evaluate the best methods for fair parliamentary conduct (1.1b) and create ways to make parliaments better (2.3a).

Lesson 1


  • Whiteboard, speakers and good internet connection for streaming video.
  • Preload the following pages in separate windows or tabs (instructions correct at the time of going to print):
    • Go to and click ‘What’s On’. Using the date options, find the most recent Wednesday for which ‘Oral Questions to the Prime Minister’ is listed at 12pm. Click the link to load the page.
    • Go to and click on ‘Parliament TV’ under the ‘News & Media Centre’ menu option. Select ‘First Minister’s Questions’ from the links on the right-hand side of the page, and choose the most recent instalment.
    • Load
  • A set of between three and six topics. These should be put in motion forms starting “That this House …” (Westminster form), “That the Parliament …” (Scottish form) or “The German Bundestag …” so that they can be supported by the Government and opposed by the Opposition.

Important note on class size

The active learning part of the SoW only works with a class size of 20-30 (ideally more), so consider combining smaller classes for Lesson 2.


Talk about what’s been in the news this week. If you were a Member of Parliament, what questions would you want to ask the Prime Minister about recent events?


  • Watch the first five or six minutes of Prime Minister’s Question Time from Westminster. Wait until you’ve heard from several MPs on both sides, including the Leader of the Opposition.
  • Individually, students should write down their impressions of the debate.
  • Watch the first five or six minutes of First Minister’s Question Time from Holyrood. Wait until you’ve heard two or three exchanges between the First Minister and the Opposition Leader; they tend to dominate the first part of proceedings, so you may not hear from anyone else.
  • Individually, students should write down their impressions of the debate.
  • Working in groups and as a class, get students to compare and contrast the Question Times. How is the layout different? What order do people speak in, for how long, and in how much detail? Are the MPs and MSPs behaving themselves? What is the role of the Speaker (in Westminster) and the Presiding Officer (in Holyrood)?


Divide the class into the four groups and subgroups below. Distribute the lists of motions that you allocated to the groups before the lesson. Note the opportunities for differentiation.

Students should use this section of the lesson to brainstorm and arrange ideas, as they would in preparation for a normal debate.

Group 1:
Group 2: Holyrood / Berlin Groups 3 and 4:
Committees A and B
Prime Minister: Prepare for questions on all topics (Level: Hard) Cabinet Minister:Prepare a statement (you can specify the duration) on any of the given topics. (Level: Hard) Committee chair: Lead preparation of one topic (the two committees can use the same topic, or different ones), and make notes on opinions of all committee members (Level: Hard)
Government backbenchers: Prepare a ‘helpful’ question for the Prime Minister on one topic each (Level: Easy) Government supporters: Prepare a ‘helpful’ question for the Government Minister, possibly on the Minister’s chosen topic.* (Level: Easy) Committee members: Prepare questions or short statements (for, against or neutral) relating to the topic. (Level: Easy)
Opposition Leader: Prepare three questions against the Prime Minister, either on the same topic or different topics (Level: Medium) Opposition Leader:Prepare three questions for the Government Minister, as least one of which should be on the Minister’s chosen topic* (Level: Medium) Experts: Listen to the preparation of the topic and select a particular area to go away and research in detail for homework (Level: Harder)
Opposition backbenchers: Prepare a question each against the Prime Minister, on any of the given topics (Level: Easy) Non-Government Members: Prepare a question each either for against the Government Minister (non-Government members are not necessarily all from the same party). One or two of these should be on the Government Minister’s chosen topic.* (Level: Easy)

Questions marked with a * should be written down and handed to the teacher, who will collate and pass them on to the Government Minister at the end of the lesson so they can then prepare responses.

Tasks/research should be finished off for homework.


Watch the final video clip from the German Bundestag. Listen to the chairman introduce the Cabinet Minister before skipping to about 7 minutes into the clip. Students who speak some German can listen out for the chair mentioning the Bundestag’s new traffic light and clock-based system for timing speeches (rot = red, gelb = yellow, grün = green, rücklaufende Uhr = countdown clock). There is then a very well-mannered first question from an Abgeordnete (MP). Discuss how this clip differs from Westminster PMQs and Scottish FMQs. Which is more interesting to watch? Which makes for more effective government? Why?

Lesson 2

N.B. You may need to extend the activity over two lessons if short periods, classroom management issues or particularly able and talkative students require it.


School Hall or Gym


Chairs, tables and benches arranged as in diagram below.



All students to briefly revise their questions (and, where appropriate, group Government or Opposition policies) from previous lesson.

Section 1

(with teacher as Speaker)

Run activity in Westminster set-up, including following characteristics:

  • Questions / responses to be short, but no set time limits.
  • One speaker from each side to be called before Leader of the Opposition is called.
  • Leader of Opposition’s contributions not to be entirely consecutive
  • Pre-appoint responsible ‘rabble-rousers’ on each side to cheer, laugh and boo.
  • Clapping, however, is not permitted. Announce to all students that this behaviour is acceptable in this part of the lesson, but only within limits, which you can reinforce as Speaker using the familiar phrase “Order! Order!”.

Section 2

(chaired by teacher)

Take 2-3 minute to calm all students down (a meditative exercise with eyes closed may be useful here; ask a drama teacher for suggestions!).

Run activity in Holyrood / Bundestag set-up. Suggestions for a hybrid ‘non-Westminster’ format include:

  • Initial statement (for duration agreed last lesson) from Cabinet Minister.
  • Initial set of consecutive questions from Opposition Leader, followed by more junior members.
  • Time limits to be enforced with audible or visual signals.
  • Only pre-notified questions as written down in last lesson may be used.
  • Polite clapping may be allowed. Absolutely no booing, cheering or laughing.

Section 3

(chaired by students)

Run committee sessions, with the following rules:

  • Chairs to call on participants who, based on their work together in the last session, will be most helpful at any given moment.
  • Collaboration and mutual help is the most important part of the exercise.
  • ‘Experts’ to be called upon and accorded particular respect as ‘visitors’.


Discuss differences between different exercises.

Lesson 3

Revise differences from last lesson and then ask students to work in groups and individually to devise their own set of ideal parliamentary procedures.

Lesson 4 (optional)

Work with your school’s Media Studies department to film Lesson 2. Media Studies students should then edit sections of the footage as it might appear on:

  • The evening’s main news broadcast (soundbites only, with links from a presenter)
  • A dedicated political programme (longer excerpts)
  • On-demand footage on the internet as used in Lesson 1.

Invite the Media Studies students to the lesson to show their footage and explain their editing decisions. Ask students from your class to compare the footage with their memories of the real event. Then hold a joint discussion on the implications of this for democracy and increasing / diminishing public understanding of the political process.

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