To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Schools’ Mace, we catch up with four winners from the various decades to find out how the competition shaped their lives.
1966 – Helen Taylor, Professor Emerita, Curator & Author
I think my partner and I were the first all-girl team to progress beyond the regional contest. The motion, presumably designed especially for us, was ‘This house believes in equal pay for women’. I had no idea women weren’t paid equally, so this was my first introduction to feminist issues, and made me a feminist for life. I don’t remember much about the event – but I recall the thrill of having my photo in The Observer [which ran the competition from 1957-1995], being fêted for our female triumph, and being interviewed on the Today programme. The male presenter patronised me horribly, then asked ‘Don’t you think boys might be put off by your success?’ Thrown by this absurd question, I responded in a way that made me the laughing-stock of my fellow schoolgirls, saying: ‘Well that’s not the only thing they’re interested in’. I think my headmistress and parents were shocked to the core.
This success was a wonderful boost to my confidence and career. I developed debating and public speaking skills that have stood me in good stead all my life – in my career as an academic, literary festival curator, broadcaster and speaker. Later that year I began studying English at University College London, and after graduation was awarded an ESU scholarship at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. I spent two great years there, becoming deeply involved in feminist and black politics, and falling in love with southern literature, which I then taught on my return to the UK.
Debating teaches you to create and shape arguments, to flex your intellectual muscles and learn how to persuade and cajole. It’s something all young people should learn because whether making a case against your local councillors or simply challenging your friends, you need the skills to listen, respond and make coherent arguments. My experience in the competition gave me the confidence to challenge people and fight for what I believe is right.
1980 – Michael Marmur, Rabbi
My friend Daniel and I had an exciting time at the final of The Observer Mace in 1980. We were both residents of North London in those days, but for religious reasons we needed to stay nearer the venue on the night following the competition. A kind family with an apartment in the Barbican agreed to host us. While my memories of the actual debate are somewhat fuzzy, I remember getting lost in the labyrinth of what was then a recently-constructed building complex.
In the debate itself we were asked to oppose involvement of athletes in the soon-to-be-held Moscow Olympic games, which America was threatening to boycott. It was a good subject for a debate – topical, controversial, and one which could be argued convincingly on either side.
Daniel and I are still good friends, and we still live close to each other – in Jerusalem. I am now a Reform rabbi and I serve as provost of an academic institution which trains rabbis, cantors, educators, communal professionals and graduate students in Israel and North America. I use the ‘muscles’ I learnt to exercise in debating just about every day – when I am teaching, delivering sermons, participating in meetings, giving talks, grappling with the issues I care most passionately about. Luckily, the competitive aspect of debating is something I have been able to leave behind. Rather, debating as a way of working in a team: thinking clearly, paying attention to the structure and elegance of an argument, making good use of language, asking yourself what matters to you and the people you are engaged with, listening closely to what is being said – these are skills that have stayed with me.
A few weeks after we won, our headmaster showed up at my home carrying a long bag, which turned out to contain the mace itself. I don’t know if cricketers get to place the urn with the ashes on their mantelpiece during breakfast, or footballers place the FA
Cup next to their eggcup, but I can certainly recommend dining in the presence of a prestigious trophy! The mace was returned to the organisers after some time, but the skills and friendships that went along with the process have lasted a lifetime.
1993 – Amanda Pritchard, Chief Executive, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust
Debating and this competition have had a huge impact on my life. I took part in 1993, just two years after my school, Durham Johnston Comprehensive, had started a debate club. It was unusual for a school so new to debating to have a team do so well. And we were unusual in that we were the only comprehensive school in the final and one of the only ones in the competition. We felt we beat the odds a little! The whole experience was another world for me, in the earlier rounds we competed in schools that looked like castles. It didn’t ever occur to us to find it intimidating though – we just thought: ‘bring it on!’ I remember the motion was ‘This house regrets the end of the Cold War’, but I can’t remember if we were for or against, or what I said at all. What I do know is that debating helped me become much more outward-focused. I started reading The Economist and learnt so much through researching topics for debates. It stops you being insular and makes you engage in the wider world.
Debating gave me confidence in standing in front of lots of people, thinking on my feet and responding to questions I hadn’t prepared and it also helped me to be able to break down issues, think them through logically, and present my arguments coherently.
I’m now the Chief Executive of Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, one of the largest providers of hospital and community services in England, with £1.3 billion turnover and 15,000 staff treating over 2 million patients a year. It’s a complex strategic and operational role with competing agendas and multiple stakeholders and I think the skills I learned by debating have helped me enormously. It’s important to think through complexity and not be overwhelmed by it, which debating helps you to do. And relentless positive energy helps too!
2000 – Abie Philbin Bowman, Comedian & Journalist
The competition happened at a strange time in my life. My older brother Jonathan died that March. Eight days later, I was scheduled to debate. The organisers offered to let my partner and me qualify automatically for the next round. I remember clearly saying: ‘No. I’ve been thinking about my brother’s death every waking moment for a week. I need something constructive to focus on.’ My brother was sharp, funny and highly argumentative. So it was quite healing to honour him by doing something he loved. ‘This House should Fear China’ was the motion and we were opposing, arguing that China could be a valuable ally.
As a teenage boy in a single-sex school, debating was a fabulous way to meet interesting girls. A few months after winning the Mace, I went to university, and realised there were interesting girls everywhere. In my first term, I gradually fell out of love with debating but ended up in stand-up comedy, which requires a lot of the same skills: confidence, clarity and the crippling need to make strangers like you. Tragically, in recent years, I’ve become serene and contented. As a result, my comedy career has plummeted.
In 2005, I wrote a show called Jesus: The Guantanamo Years. The basic premise was that Jesus Christ returns to Earth but He doesn’t get through US immigration – because he’s a bearded Middle Eastern guy, prepared to die as a martyr. To my amazement, the show sold out and then toured to London’s West End, the USA and Pakistan (during a state of emergency).
These days, I work as a reporter for arts shows on children’s radio and Ireland’s national radio station, RTE 1 and, once a week, I conduct tours at the Little Museum of Dublin, where I try to summarise 1,000 years of Irish history, with jokes.
Debating helped me to hone skills that I use every day. By far the most important skill wasn’t arguing. It was listening. How else will you persuade your parents to let you stay up late or your teachers to give you less homework? And how else can you convince other people that they’re obviously wrong?
What is the Schools’ Mace?
Founded in 1957 by Kenneth Harris of The Observer newspaper, the Schools’ Mace is the oldest and largest annual debating competition for secondary school students in England. Students work in teams of two proposing or opposing pre-released motions. To find out more click here.
This article has been extracted from Dialogue. To read more of this issue click here.