Rehearsing for when you get to run the country: The importance of debate

by Dr James Mannion

This is the fourth in a series of six extracts from Fear is the Mind Killer: Why Learning to Learn deserves lesson time – and how to make it work for your pupils.

The feedback we have received so far has been pretty phenomenal. You can read all the very kind things people have said about it here. And you can buy it here (John Catt) or here (Amazon).

Here are all the posts in this series:

This post is about the importance of debate.


Rationale for teaching debating skills

I may have mentioned this before on these pages, but it bears repeating: a few years ago, Eton College splashed out an eye-watering £18 million on its new debating chamber, Jafar Hall. [1] It looks a bit like the House Commons, with rows of benches facing one another.

Eton has now produced no fewer than 20 Prime Ministers.

At Harrow School, there is something called a ‘super-curriculum’ which “includes (but is not limited to) wide and habitual reading, extended project work, debate, public speaking, research, competitions, lectures, study trips…” [2] Recently, a group of Harrovians travelled to India to debate “the best speakers from Calcutta at the Indian Cultural Commission’s auditorium in front of a large audience that included media.” [3]

Harrow has produced seven Prime Ministers.

At Westminster School, there are a range of societies “run by the pupils themselves (which)… involve a mixture of external speakers and internal pupil-led discussions and presentations.” As the school’s website explains:

“The nature of Westminster’s approach to learning means that a debate-style challenging of ideas and development of arguments is common to most of the societies; however, there are also several specific debating societies, teams and programmes. As well as internal opportunities such as House Debating, Westminster pupils can get involved in external inter-school competitions both nationally and internationally.” [4]

Westminster has produced six Prime Ministers.

You get the idea.

Clearly, there is more to gaining access to the corridors of power than having a way with words. The fact that each of the schools mentioned above are incredibly expensive to attend (the annual fees are considerably higher than the average national salary) – and that they are exclusive to the male of the species – cannot be overlooked. Other factors play a role too, as can be seen in the following account of a Year 9 ‘balloon debate’, published on the Eton College website, in which students imagine that they are in a sinking hot-air balloon and must decide which Old Etonians are worth saving, and which should be considered ballast:

‘The Debating Society’s final meeting of a successful half packed out the Marten Library, with a predominantly F Block [Year 9] audience, to decide who has been the best Old Etonian of all time. The debaters were all F Blockers who had been recruited by a Debating Society committee member who helped to prepare their argument. The candidates ranged from George Orwell to Hugh Laurie and included the less well known Captain Julian Gribble, whose heroic actions in the First World War were an interesting cameo to such well known figures as Keynes. The quality of debating from all the F Block involved was exceptional and surprised the audience in their humour and particularly their ability to think on their feet. Such mature performances from young debaters made the evening’s balloon debate an excellent competition. The round where they criticised each other’s characters was a highlight, Boris Johnson’s representative putting in a fittingly humorous and offensive performance. The final left Boris and Hugh Laurie in the balloon (the audience having dismissed Keynes, Orwell, Wellington and Gribble as credible candidates for the greatest OE of all time) and Hugh Laurie eventually prevailed. The evening showed the strength of Eton’s young debaters who certainly entertained the audience, who will have felt it was another evening well spent with the rejuvenated Debating Society.’ [5]

Setting aside the baffling question of how the students decided that Hugh Laurie and our current Prime Minister should prevail over George Orwell and John Maynard Keynes, here we can see how, as well as taking debating seriously, the tradition of belonging to a school that has produced so many people of influence helps inculcate a sense among the students that they too could one day be similarly influential, should they so choose. Nevertheless, it is surely no coincidence that so many Prime Ministers (as well as famous politicians, economists, authors, actors etc) have been the alumni of a small group of schools that take public speaking and, in particular, debating, extremely seriously. [6]

Here’s how seriously they take it. In a form of debate commonly practiced in schools like these, the team arguing in favour of the motion are referred to as the ‘government’, while the team arguing against are referred to as the ‘opposition’. Moreover, the individuals opening the debate are referred to as the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and those opposing are referred to as the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition.

Just take a moment to let this sink in. At schools like Eton, Harrow and Westminster, students regularly get to play a game of ‘government versus opposition’. They are literally rehearsing for when they get to run the country. This is a good thing: we should rehearse such things. But if we really want to draw on all the available talent to fill these vital roles – and a brief survey of the current crop of the world’s politicians suggests that this might not be an entirely bad idea – surely we should be playing this game in every school on the planet? What kind of a world would we have if such knowledge, skills and opportunities were truly democratised, rather than being limited to the children of the super-rich? It’s an interesting question to reflect on. It would be even more interesting if, as a teaching profession, we decided to find out for real.


What does it look like in practice?

At Sea View, one of the half-termly projects was to have a structured debate each week. Having not attended elite private schools ourselves, the Learning Skills team was not experienced in the art of running formal debates and so we had to learn with the students as we went along. Since we left Sea View, we have become aware of the English Speaking Union (ESU), a wonderful organisation with lots of excellent programmes and resources for promoting debate in primary and secondary schools. [7] Had we known about the ESU ten years ago, we would probably have done things differently. But, for what it’s worth, here’s how we ran debate lessons at Sea View:

  1. The students would propose a range of motions for debate (e.g. we should ban violent video games; footballers are paid too much money; the internet is a force for good). We would discuss each in turn, considering how well-suited it is to extended debate (e.g. Do we know enough about this topic? Are there several strong arguments on either side?), and then we would vote to choose one.
  2. All students would then spend two lessons researching arguments for and against the motion, making detailed notes and flash cards. We would discuss the importance of understanding both sides of the debate, and the power of the counterargument as a method for undercutting your opponent’s position before they have even spoken (‘Our opponents will argue that zoos are cruel. However, zoos have saved over a thousand endangered species from going extinct and many have been returned to the wild. Zoos are the opposite of cruel!’).
  3. Five students would then be allocated to the speaking positions (one chair, two arguing for the motion, two against). These allocations were drawn from a hat, to ensure that all students had a speaking role at least once during the half-term (5 students a week x 6 weeks = 30 speaking roles across the half-term). The class would then be split in half – half arguing for the motion, half against – and the two teams would prepare their case, ranking the various arguments in order of how persuasive they felt they were and deciding who would say what in the opening statements. During this lesson, the chair would work across both groups to familiarise themselves with what each side was planning to say.
  4. The debate lesson itself would take the following format:
    1. Audience votes on the motion (for/against)
    2. Opening statement by Prime Minister [8]
    3. Opening statement by Leader of the Opposition
    4. Opening statement by Deputy Prime Minister
    5. Opening statement by Deputy Leader of the Opposition
    6. Chaired discussion, where the for and against teams respond to the opening statements and question one another
    7. Questions / comments from the floor
    8. Summing up / closing comment from either side
    9. Audience votes on the motion (for/against)
    10. Audience provides feedback verbal feedback on what each person had done well
    11. Audience provides written feedback on what went well / even better if (on slips that they filled in during the debate – so that each of the five speaking members received 4 or 5 slips with written feedback on how they had performed)

As you can see, this is a time-consuming process – it would take us a whole week of lessons to prepare for and carry out one debate. Even though we spent a whole half-term on it, most students only got the chance to play a speaking role once within that period. It is important that you spend the time building up the students’ knowledge of the topic to be discussed, and it isn’t easy to see how the time could be cut down considerably.

Often, debating in schools is limited to an after-school club for a small number of interested students. But if we’re going to democratise the knowledge and skills and confidence that emerge through debating – and such things are surely vital to the very idea of a healthy democracy – then debating really needs to be woven in to the fabric of the curriculum in all schools – fee-paying or otherwise.

In the context of a packed curriculum, with the best will in the world, it’s difficult to find the time to make sure all students learn the technicalities and language of debate, let alone to provide all students with regular opportunities to take part in debates. This provides us with a strong argument for having a taught Learning Skills curriculum, where you can give skills such as debating and presentational skills to time investment that they deserve. Once this knowledge and these skills have been mastered through a taught Learning to Learn course, the practice of debating and presentational talk can be imported into subject learning across the curriculum much more easily. It is to the topic of presentational talk that we will turn in the next post in this series.


[1] You can build an entire state school with £18m; see




[5] Gardiner-Hill, C. (2009) Debating Society: F Block Balloon Debate. Posted November 25. Available at:

[6] To see just how consistent this pattern has been, spend a few seconds scrolling down this web page:

[7] See

[8] We didn’t use this terminology at the time, but we do now.

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