Debating teaches skills of listening, thinking on your feet and hearing the other side. We speak to three schools where great debates are celebrated and nurtured

How do we teach the skills required for reasoned argument to young people in a landscape of social media ‘pile ons’, ‘groupthink’ and, arguably, lack of proper conduct in many areas of public life. One answer might be: debating.

There is, perhaps, a modern tendency to see the formal debates as ‘old school’, but that is to misunderstand their point. Being asked to debate an opinion other than your own, preparing an argument in a very short time, listening to other people and using a reasoned argument to counter their points – these are all invaluable assets in all sorts of settings. We find out how debating works at three schools that take it seriously and carry home prizes.

Debating strengths – why schools encourage reasoned argument
At The Leys School in Cambridge lunchtime debating attracts an enthusiastic crowd to listen to the arguments

The Leys School

At The Leys School in Cambridge, debating takes place each Thursday lunchtime in the theatre – known as the Great Hall – setting the scene for lively discussions. “It is open to all year groups – Year 7-13 – and it is a popular activity,” says Head of English Anna Garrett. “Each week we typically have 80- 100 pupils in attendance. In the Spring Term we run the House Competition between 11 houses. These debates are always very well attended, and the final is held in a Monday assembly.”

Debating takes place within other forums in the school, including English and History lessons. “Oracy is an important skill to develop, and less formal debates can enable pupils’ skills in listening and engaging with the thoughts and beliefs of others,” says Anna Garratt. “Developing these skills in the context of speaking and listening also has an impact on pupils’ writing and ability to maintain a critical line of enquiry.”

“The structure of debates teaches you to respect other people’s opinions – at the same time giving you the ability to advocate for your own view”

They may be young, but pupils at The Leys have a good understanding of the principles around debates – including hearing what others say. “We frequently discuss the importance and merit of always engaging with the ‘other side’ of an argument so that opinions about the wider world are not formed in an echo chamber,” says Anna Garratt. “It is important that pupils learn how to engage with controversy in a way that isn’t reactive but creates a space to challenge the potentially problematic.”

Robert Francis, Teacher of History at The Leys says there is wider value in debating. “Having to present an argument out loud and communicate its meaning makes you think much harder about pace, tone and clear structure than if you are simply writing an essay or an article,” he says. “We believe it actually makes you a much better writer and thinker.”

Another important value is in amassing your thoughts, and your argument, quickly and accurately. As to the formalities, Robert Francis believes they are useful in helping build advocacy skills. “The slightly formal structure of debates teaches you to respect other people’s opinions, whilst at the same time, giving you the ability to advocate effectively for your own view.”

The Leys has notable successes in competitions. Pupils are invited to participate in the Rotary Youth Speaks competition, which takes place each autumn, and in 2022, an all-female team from The Leys won the final regional round with a debate on whether the concept of marriage is outdated.

The Leys, Cambridge

Sydenham High School pupils (also pictured top) take part in many internal and external debating events and competitions

Sydenham High School

Sydenham High School GDST uses the British Parliamentary (BP) format for debating competitions, and in class or group settings some less formal structures are brought into play. Fun class activities include ‘debating tennis’, in which you debate back and forth, and each time disagree with your opponent’s points. There’s also ‘argument tunnel’, where pupils stand either side of a line depending on their opinion. Then they attempt to persuade each other to switch sides. Silent debating helps generate reasoned arguments on paper among pupils who are less confident orally.

Teachers find that pupils have the maturity to understand that in debating both sides are arguing a case rather than their own opinion – and getting younger pupils involved with ‘unarguable’ motions, such as: ‘this house believes that five-year-olds should be allowed to drive’ add fun and key debating skills. The school’s SYDx and One Voice programmes provide pupils with the chance to refine presentation skills, putting forward arguments in a different way to traditional debating but developing similar skills. The school fields pupils for a variety of public speaking competitions, such as the Chrystall Carter Prize.

“In Mock Trials, girls are tasked to practise the law as barristers, jurors, ushers and clerks – all under the watchful supervision of real judges”

Sydenham High participates in the ESU Schools MACE and has started a House Debating Competition this year. Years 10 and 12 also participate in the Independent Schools Mock Trials. For this, they are tasked to practise the law as barristers, jurors, ushers and clerks – all under the watchful supervision of real judges. The school participated for the first time in 2022 and won the regional finals in 2022 and also this year.

Years 5 and 6 explore different engaging topics through debating workshops. The children understand how to form their arguments as a proposition or opposition and the importance of research, rebuttal, reasoning, and persuasive speaking skills. From planning an argument – even if it’s one disagreed with – to choosing words with care,

Sydenham High School finds that debating prepares children to take on many challenges and has a positive impact that spills over into academic work, also greatly enhancing listening skills. Just as importantly, it builds confidence with oral communication and agility of thought – being able to adapt and change things on the fly if the speech isn’t going as intended and listening and reacting to others’ points and comments.

Sydenham High School

Wellington College pupils enjoy competitive debating and get guidance from expert coaches – staff see a positive impact in the classroom

Wellington College

At Wellington College, Berkshire, young people rise to the challenge of debating with gusto. The school debate club meets every Tuesday and expert coaches come in to assist with learning the ropes. “Basically, we treat it as the equivalent of a competitive sport and they get competitive coaching,” says Teacher of History Chloe Whitelaw.

The school generally uses the BP debating system – Chloe Whitelaw believes this is among the most challenging debate formats at competition level. “They have 15 minutes to prepare, and they are not allowed to look up any information,” she says. Wellington College teams carried home the ESU Mace in 2018 and 2021 and got through to the second round this year. Students have also competed in the Oxford and Cambridge schools’ debating competitions with notable recent successes.

Debating activities spill over into other areas and have a positive impact in the classroom. Harkness boardroom-style discussions are used a lot here, and the principle of open discussion – using add, link and challenge – is definitely assisted by experience in formal debating. It also helps in other classroom forums. “If you just argue your perspective it becomes like the echo chamber,” adds Chloe Whitelaw. She points to the value in understanding the other side and being open-minded.

“We treat debating as the equivalent of a competitive sport – they get competitive coaching”

As organiser of the debate club where much of the formal debating takes place, Chloe Whitelaw has asked pupils for their perspectives on what it brings. “So many of them have said ‘it’s really improved my confidence in myself, my ability to think on the spot’. They also say it’s improved their essay writing and their ability to formulate their arguments.”

This, of course, extends beyond school – thinking on the spot is a very useful skill in any tough or competitive interview situation. “Last year our entire senior debating team got offers from Oxbridge. I’m not saying it’s causation – it’s just interesting – it has certainly helped us with club recruitment!” says Chloe Whitelaw.

She also sees the value for all pupils, however academic on paper, in building a useful extra skillset that develops memory, general knowledge and thoughtful argument. Whether it’s engaging discussions round the dinner table or arguing your point in a board meeting, knowing how to use reasoned debate and logical argument – and listen very carefully to the other side – is a very useful accomplishment for both public and private life.

Wellington College

Further reading: Why school partnerships add value on all sides