Everywhere you look these days, someone is offering an opinion. From social networking sites to radio phone-ins, it’s simple to give your view – anyone can do it. But to debate properly is a skill and an art that can help youngsters later in life. Many schools now are reviving traditional debating societies and Kent County Council is leading this with its Youth Council and Primary Schools’ Council.

So what is the correct way to debate? Essentially it is arguing with a clear set of rules. Sutton Valence Preparatory School assistant head Adrian Wyles says: ‘Debating is fun but there is a rigid structure over five minutes per side. One minute is ‘protected time’ for the team to put across their views; there are three minutes for questions and one minute to sum up. Debating enables students to think on their feet. For example, in competition, participants are given the topic only 15 minutes before and in that time they have to decide whether they are for or against and to prepare their arguments. When I adjudicate, I am looking for the person who persuaded me most, who was the strongest person regardless of my views.’

Learning to speak in public starts early – and does in schools across the land. We have all heard about show and tell – and this activity has defined purpose, as Christine Flowers, the head of Bricklehurst Manor School in Wadhurst explains. She says: ‘In kindergarten, children are encouraged to bring in their own things of interest for show and tell. This works very well, encouraging the children to talk in front of other children, and to get other children to listen to them, because listening skills go hand in hand with this.’

In a school with a range of languages, developing confidence is crucial, and like show and tell, talking about the familiar is one way of encouraging children to speak out. Buckswood School in Guestling is an international school and the headteacher Mark Redsell explains: ‘Being an international school we are fortunate to have over 50 countries represented here. This encourages a healthy, natural debate in the playground ‘How do you do this in your country?’ or ‘Why do we do that in this way here?’ are questions we hear all the time.

‘As professionals we plant doubts, queries and questions in the minds of our pupils and then provoke differing opinions. We listen to their opinions and teach them that their opinions are valid which motivates the pupils to participate more the next time.’

Taking part in school plays helps to build confidence. Christine says: ‘We do drama productions from kindergarten upwards – starting with nativities – and children will gradually take on more speaking parts. Further up the school, pupils talk about subjects as part of their English lessons – they have to go and research something and share what they have found with the rest of the class.’

Formal public speaking is encouraged too. Christine says: ‘Pupils can also choose to do the Lamda Speaking in Public exam where they work on speech and prose. The exam gives them the chance to deliver clearly a piece of prose they have learned, or something they have written. Pupils are learning by memory, practising speaking out to an audience while developing confidence as well as creative and lateral thinking skills.’

For older children, debating can become a wonderful, challenging pastime. At Sutton Valence School, Adrian says: ‘We have several activities that encourage public speaking. The debating club has evolved over the past five or so years so we now have two members of staff overseeing. We run a competition between houses over the year, working towards the final, each team has to have a representation from the junior, middle and senior years. This allows some students to start to shine.’

Through this competition, Adrian is looking out for members to join the Hunting Society, the name of the school’s senior debating society. He is unsure about the origins of the name but the activity remains the same – to take part in inter-school debating fixtures, including the Oxford and Cambridge Union South East Meetings. Adrian says: ‘This is a great learning process as well as being fun. The Oxford and Cambridge Unions give clear instruction on what they are looking for and the feedback is detailed too. We have some great characters who can speak from the heart and really persuade an audience.

‘I have seen several students transformed over the years but there is one lad in particular who is very bright, getting good grades and is also very, very shy. But when he gets up to speak he has such authority he becomes a different person and has grown in confidence.’

Buckswood has a purpose-built debating chamber. Mark says: ‘We have a society as well as debating as a lesson throughout the whole school. We encourage the students to choose the topics and then either defend or challenge them in front of the rest of the group. We are also members of The Hague International Model United Nations, which organises international debates around the world. Last year we took a group to Dubai to participate and we did very well. Next year there is a debate in Singapore and we will send a delegation there too. We learn from this organisation as the competition is very good and the level of debates is extraordinary. As our internationalism is very strong, and growing, we are in a good place to learn and teach debating and encourage our British pupils to be inspired.’

Debating is part of vital training for adult life. Adrian says: ‘Good communication skills help to push you ahead of the game – so many people are getting the grades on their CV; when you are used to being questioned under pressure, this sets you apart.’ Christine says: ‘It is important because we are involved in meetings, and communicating with the public and colleagues. Even at the level of applying to some secondary schools that have group interviews, children will have to demonstrate they can contribute or they will be left behind.’

Mark adds: ‘With the growth of the internet and other virtual forms of communication, face to face discussion and debates are becoming skills that are being lost by the young. We need to develop these abilities more so that when the pupils are faced with misinterpretations, confusions, different opinions and differing social strata they are equipped with the necessary skills to flourish.’

Most students will start off their debating life arguing about fox-hunting or endangered species, and far from being far removed from their own life, these sessions are instilling some great skills that will help to give them the edge.

The skills of a good public speaker:
Christine Flowers: A good confident public speaker is one who can engage the audience and be heard. Good enunciation, good speed and being able to look out at the audience while they are speaking.

Adrian Wyles: Being able to think on your feet. Debating teaches students that they can make a reasoned case rather than just saying the first thing that pops into their head. Debaters need to research their subject and have to know what they going to say two steps down the line because there are people lining up to knock down their argument so it encourages good research and preparation skills.

How parents can help:
Mark Redsell: We have many cross cultural debates and discussions in which our parents join. Parents come in to class to discuss subjects, adding their international experience to our school. Our parents are very keen on our debating programme and we get lots of positive feedback as we believe we all share the same fears and worries about our nation’s youth.

Adrian Wyles: Parents can help by conversing with your child about items in the news. You don’t have to do it in any formal way, it can be as simple as ‘what do you think about this?’

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