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The Schools’ Mace debating contest taught me that if you fight and you work, you can win

Dorothy Byrne

Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4

Hear my story
Blackpool pier

STANDING UP FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN

Standing on a table and being shouted at is not a typical introduction to debating, but for Dorothy Bryne, now Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4, it gave her the confidence to tackle whatever life may throw at her. As a pupil at Leyton Hill Convent in Blackpool in 1970, Dorothy was mentored for the English-Speaking Union’s Schools’ Mace by a tutor the nuns had brought in. ‘He stood me on a table, gave me a topic and then, as I began talking, he would shout and swear at me,’ says Dorothy. ‘I was astonished, but he insisted I carry on, however rude he was.’ It worked – Dorothy and her classmate Frankie Jordan went on to beat Stonyhurst College at the regional contest and City of London School in the finals.

It was an extraordinary confidence boost to have beaten all the top schools and the message I took from it was this: Britain is not an egalitarian society, but if you have talent and put in the work, you can win.

After studying at Manchester University and volunteering in Nigeria, Dorothy moved into journalism, where her debate training has stood her in good stead. ‘In journalism you have to argue every day for what you think is the right thing to do, you need to know how to rally the key points and you need to know when to give in – when to accept what another person says.’ She now has what she describes as ‘the best job in British television’, commissioning challenging investigative journalism and overseeing programmes including Channel 4 News and Dispatches, in which editorial judgment is key.

‘In my life as a journalist I have seen people who come out of university with double firsts who cannot do the basic job of a journalist because they do not know how to speak to somebody and they do not know how to listen,’ she continues. ‘Because I debated a lot at school and university, when I know I’m right – and I’m not always right – but when I know I’m right and I really believe in something then I know I can win the person over. Debating is all about learning to project what you really believe in.’

Unsurprisingly, Dorothy is keen that all young people get involved in debating.

‘It still saddens me to think that it is mainly boys at private schools who are taught to debate. Life today requires a much wider range of skills than many of our schools are spending time on.’

SUPPORT OUR WORK

Like Dorothy, we believe that all children, regardless of background or family income, should have the chance to learn to debate, and our flagship programme, Discover Debating, works to address this. Aimed at state primary schools with a higher than average proportion of pupils receiving free school meals, and/or for whom English is an additional language, it encourages confidence about speaking up and creates a sustainable culture of debating in schools where this has not traditionally been the case.

Image of two primary kids at discover debating

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