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Home > News and views > How to build an effective proposition case

How to build an effective proposition case

English and debating teacher and author Julian Bell tells us how to build a persuasive argument for change

Debating is about changing the world.

Actually, it isn’t, most of the time, unless it’s a debate in parliament which results in a law being passed. However, policy motions – which are the most commonly used motions – are about changing the way things are. Understanding this will help you, if you are the proposition, to build an effective case.

A helpful way to think of building the case for change is to think in terms of NOW, THEN and ACTION.

NOW is the situation as it is. THEN is where you want to get to. ACTION is what gets you from NOW to THEN

The ACTION is what is at the centre of the motion; it’s what comes after ‘This house would …’

In order to make a case for the proposition, you need to prove that:

1. NOW is bad.

2. THEN would be better.

3. The ACTION will get us to THEN.

You need to answer the following questions:

1. What’s the NOW?
2. What’s wrong with NOW?
3. What will THEN look like?
4. Why will THEN be better?
5. How will the ACTION get us to THEN?

So, how would you do this in practice?

Let’s take a very concrete policy motion: ‘This house would make it compulsory for all 18 year olds to do a year of community service.’

1.What’s the NOW?

18 year olds can do what they want when they leave school; go to university, get further training, get a job, or do nothing all day.

2. What’s wrong with NOW?
Young people think only of their own future, without any sense of the needs of others less fortunate than themselves.
As a result, society is very fragmented and lacking in solidarity.
Young people only learn a narrow set of skills.
Young people have little experience of the lives of people who are not like them.
Many young people, who do not have places at uni / jobs with prospects, lack a sense of direction and purpose.
Charities and voluntary organisations helping less fortunate people are understaffed.

3. What will THEN look like?
Every 18 year old would spend a year, before beginning study or work, helping people less fortunate than themselves.

4. Why will THEN be better?
Society will be more open minded, as people would grow up with a broader experience of life. Society will be more united, as people would have a shared experience at a formative age. Society will be more compassionate, as people would have been confronted with people less fortunate than themselves.
All 19 year olds will be equipped with basic, transferrable skills.
Charitable / voluntary projects will never be understaffed.

5. How will the ACTION get us to THEN?
By making the year of community service universal, with very few exceptions, this law would ensure all the benefits listed above.

Thinking in terms of NOW, THEN and ACTION is a very helpful way to break down, and then build up, a proposition case. It is also, by the way, a very useful skill to have in life, whenever you want to persuade people to embrace a change you think is desirable, whether that’s being loaned money to launch a new business; radically changing our way of life to cut carbon emissions; or being allowed to move into your sister’s bedroom now she’s gone to uni.

Try for yourself

Analyse, either by yourself, or discussing in your debate club with your debate coach, these motions, in terms of NOW, THEN and ACTION.

1. This house would ban parents from driving their children to school.
2. This house would decriminalise drugs.
3. This house would abolish GCSEs.


This is an extract from The Debating Book by Julian Bell, one of the leaders of UK schools debating.

Order your hard copy here.

Order your ebook version here.

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