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Case Study: Graveney School, London

Graveney School is a foundation specialist school with Technology College status in south London, with 2000 students and a large sixth form college open to those from outside the school.

David Perks, until recently Head of Physics at Graveney School, was the originator of the Debating Matters Competition. Frustrated by other competitions, David approached the Academy of Ideas in 2002 with the idea of a pilot for a new style of schools debating. We interviewed David to find out why he wanted to create Debating Matters, and why he believes debating is so important for the education of his students.

Having taken part in many debating competitions in his time at Graveney School, David simply wasn’t a fan of the formats he encountered, most of which he felt focussed excessively on style and process. Annoyed at his students’ experience one year, he felt there was a better way to engage them in debate. Over a chance meeting with Philip Walters, former Chief Executive of Hodder Education, in 2002, David proposed a pilot for a new style of debating competition which would challenge students to focus on ideas and issues. That first pilot event was produced by the Academy of Ideas, whose director Claire Fox established the now familiar ‘Pop Idol’ format of a panel of judges putting students under pressure to justify their arguments. Since that first pilot year many of David’s initial criteria for the new format have remained: the need to coherently argue your case; being judged by a panel of adults on how you argued that case; and showing student debaters real respect by challenging them as young adults, because they are capable of thinking about the world around them. Now in its eighth year, and with competitions in the UK and India, David’s initial idea has flourished into more than he could have imagined back in 2002.

Back at Graveney School the debating society has existed for the past 10 years, run and motivated by David, who was supported this year by former Debating Matters participant and newly qualified teacher, Daniel Smith. He initially established a space for debating at the school for sixth formers as they wanted a forum for argument and to discuss issues they were aware of and interested in, but which weren’t being discussed as part of their teaching. The initial organisation of the club was chaotic he says, but the students who were involved were themselves motivated to make it a success, and David’s role was primarily to help facilitate it within the school. Having the support of the school’s management is really important as it allows him to secure the time required to continue the debate society, which takes place on Friday lunchtimes in the sixth form block. Of the debate society he says there’s often a dynamic atmosphere and that the students really get into whatever subject they’re considering, and it includes a wide range of students from across the sixth form, many of whom only come together in this context. The debate society allows for a broader range of ideas to be heard than might otherwise be the case, and forces all sides in a debate to justify their position - and essentially to understand the limits of their own arguments. No argument or idea is taboo or banned - everything is up for discussion.

But this doesn’t make the Friday afternoon debates a free for all - the process is very disciplined, with David being a lynchpin of pressure on the students’ arguments. David’s students write their initial speeches, test them out with him and in mock debates, and then re-write based on that feedback. This testing-out process is crucial and they learn a lot, framed by the process which demands an understanding of the other side of an argument. The debate society allows those who wouldn’t necessarily feel confident about doing so to air their own ideas and, essentially, to be challenged. David points out that not all students enjoy having their ideas challenged, and some never come back to the debating society! After each Friday debate votes are taken to see which side was most convincing, but the vote is of least interest to those involved - it’s the process the students enjoy.

Of those students involved in the debate society each year, David will encourage them to compete in external competitions, giving the greatest number and mixture of students the opportunity to debate competitively against other schools. This explains why as well as Debating Matters, Graveney school last year took part in the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge, the ESU’s London Debate Challenge, the LSE School Competition and Imperial College Schools’ Science Debating Competition, and this coming year David will also be entering the ESU’s School’s Mace.

Despite the extra pressure running a schools debating club can have on teachers (finding the time and energy, and sometimes the funds to participate in external competitions) David believes the extra-curricular aspect of schools debating is crucial, saying:

“It’s about establishing a relationship of trust between me and the students. Whatever issue they are looking at, they aren’t constrained - either by the need to match the school curriculum or, more importantly, by what’s commonly understood to be the ‘acceptable’ thing to say. There is a genuine openness in the society and the ability to try out new ideas.”

Also essential he says is that he isn’t:

”...training his students to understand a particular debate format, but rather in critical thinking skills - about how to form and develop an argument. This was one of the key motivators in establishing the Debating Matters format - privileging content over format.”

As if to prove this point, the Graveney debating society will regularly meet up with other schools, via teachers David’s met through Debating Matters, for informal Debating Matters style inter-school debates which he says is both fun but an essential experience for his students. And this November, motivated by the Debating Matters and ESRC Global Uncertainties project last year, the debating society will be holding a day of debates around the theme of ‘Women and Feminism’, inviting three other schools to debate the issue alongside talks from outside speakers.

So, given the dynamism of the Graveney debating society, and the number of competitions they enter, we asked David, tentatively, why Graveney have yet to win Debating Matters?! His philosophical approach to this question was that he isn’t necessarily instilling in his students a ‘killer instinct’ for winning. Rather he sees the process of debating and taking part in competitions as their key goal:

“If your school’s debating society is about winning trophies then yes, drill them hard in a competition format - but that’s not why I do this. Whether or not they win the debates and competitions they compete in, they’ll never forget the experience and what they’ve learnt from it. It will mean something to them long after the debate’s over.”


Since this interview with David Perks, Graveney School went on to (finally!) win the 2012 National Final (you can read more about that in a seperate news story: ‘Co-founder of competition finally sees his school triumph’) and David has left Graveney to found the East London Science School, a new free school due to open in 2013.

FURTHER HELP

Tell us about debating at your school - email Justine Brian. Have you been inspired to start a debate club as a result of these examples? If so, please let us know!

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