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Home > News and views > Top tips…from the winners of our Debating Culture Award

Top tips…from the winners of our Debating Culture Award

We asked the winners of the ESU Debating Culture Award to share some advice about their schools journey…

The ESU Debating Culture Award is an annual prize that recognises the efforts and initiatives that schools put in place to cultivate a long-term debating culture within their school community. We asked Laura Pearson, a teacher from this year’s winning school, St Peter’s, York, to share some advice with other teachers hoping to foster oracy in their schools. Her tips will come in handy at whatever stage of the debating journey you’re on…

In March we were absolutely delighted to accept the ESU Debating Culture award for 2018. It comes at a really exciting time for us as, whilst we have developed a strong speaking culture in our school, we are just beginning of exploring the outreach possibilities in our local area. And it is this latter element of our debating and speaking work that we want to continue to build on in the coming months.

When I was asked to write this blog I wondered who my readership might be. I suspect there are many of you out there who are already strongly established in the debating world, some who may only be working with their own school, and some who haven’t dipped a toe into the debating water yet. On that basis I will go for the debater favourite; a well-signposted, three pronged attack.

– Some ideas about how to get started if there is no debating or public speaking in your school

– Strengthening the debating culture in your local area by joining forces with universities and other schools

– The tremendous resources and support offered by the ESU

Start small, think big – building debating and public speaking at your school

My first advice would be to see what’s going on already in your school and to coordinate your efforts. If the English department is teaching a speaking unit, or the History department is debating a certain topic, use the opportunity. Use it as the starting point for a school public speaking competition, or a lunchtime staff vs. students debate, or a mock election. Make some posters. Print some certificates. Award a prize. That’s really how we got our junior society going. Debating taught in English > captured the interest and formed a lunchtime society > started a house competition. The first steps may only involve four or five students but most speaking and debating events can be sized up so starting small is no problem!

The more we share, the more we have – linking to schools and universities

Debating is a little pointless if there’s nobody to debate with. Students really value the experience of debating with other people and, unlike most activities, the costs involved with speaking events are relatively low.

Try to reach out to schools in your area and see what you can coordinate. Piggyback onto someone else’s mailing list if you can. Often careers departments have good contacts, or perhaps your school is already part of another outreach initiative. Scout around and see if any of your colleagues have links to other schools, if they debated at university, if they competed in public speaking events. And finally, get on Twitter (I am reliably informed that this is ‘old people’s social media’) as it has a wealth of motions, resources, leads and more chances to make new contacts (like us! @STPDebating).

You might want to invite one school to debate at first, or perhaps host a debating evening if you have the budget to do so. Again, start small but start somewhere. Good judges are another really important ingredient so reach out to your local university. We have built an excellent relationship with The University of York who have been instrumental in providing knowledgeable and impartial judges for our outreach events.

The Fabulous ESU

At some point, the notion of competitions will need to be addressed. There is a bewildering array of events out there and, if you are just starting out, it can be really hard to pick where to begin. We made some attempts to travel to competitions but it was expensive and the distances were prohibitive. At the end of it all we had had some good experiences but we still didn’t really have anyone to debate with on a regular basis.

The ‘a-ha’ moment came when we got in touch with the ESU. Unlike the administrators of university competitions, the ESU have a national view of what’s going on and are easily contactable by ‘phone or email. They have extensive resources for debaters, judges and teachers all available on their website. When we rang, the wonderful Shiraz Engineer was quickly able to tell us where Mace heats were happening in our region and, more importantly, advised us about how we might set up a heat in our immediate area.

We are fortunate enough to have a debating budget so we redirected the money we had been spending on entry fees travelling to competitions, into booking ESU Discover Your Voice mentors to get the Mace ball rolling in our area. We invited neighbouring schools to join us for a ‘how to mace’ evening, which was a great opportunity for pre-competition learning, confidence building and socialising. This is something that can be replicated anywhere. Share the costs of a mentor; get your students involved in some training before the Mace heats begin. The Mace only requires two students to debate, so it is a good way of starting out.

Another really helpful aspect of the ESU programmes is that, because they are a national organisation (international, in fact), it is possible for teachers to attend regional heats and finals as a scoping exercise before taking the plunge and registering your school. I was lucky enough to be able to go to an ESU-Churchill Public Speaking regional final, which has helped me to be able to figure out how we might integrate that into our speaking and debating calendar.

Once you’ve participated in the ESU Mace or the ESU-Churchill Public Speaking Competition, you’ve made a start. You can then think about other formats, other competitions, and other ways to build your competitive profile.

I can’t emphasise enough how valuable our outreach has been not only to those who come to events here, but also for our own students. I feel strongly that we all have a responsibility to nurture oracy in our schools and communities. The new school year will be upon us before we know it so now is a good time to start planning and start building those contacts.

The old sayings are true; collaboration really is the key to success.


Image – St Peter’s School’s own photo uploaded to their website.


If you’re interested in setting up a debating society in your school, check out our Setting Up A Debate Club Guide.

Fun games, exercises, topics for debate and more are all available in our free resource section.

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