Case Study: Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Faversham
Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School is a selective co-educational grammar school. The school is attended by approximately 850 students.
Queen Elizabeth’s have taken part in Debating Matters since 2005, and have made it through to Regional Final level three times and the National Final twice. We spoke to teacher Tom Finn-Kelcey (far right), Head of PSHE & Citizenship and student Rachael Shepherd(front row, thrid from left) about debating at Queen Elizabeth’s.
The momentum to establish a school debate society came from Tom who was keen to sustain his students’ interest and momentum for debate after being knocked out of the competition one year at an early stage. When Tom took over the school debating society in 2008 there were up to 30 students involved, and by 2009 the society had attracted 90 students. Those involved in the society are currently inyears 10-13.
The debate society meets at lunchtime during the autumn term and stages an inter-school competition in the sixth form common room. During the later rounds in the spring, held in the school library, the school sees whole year groups at the debates; often with an audience of 30 to 40 students. These inter-school debates allow students to gain experience of critiquing their own peer group and learning to give feedback constructively, whilst working out where their peers arguments (and debate performance) don’t hold up. Year 13 students act as mentors to the younger debaters which involves helping them to use the Debating Matters website for research, offering advice on how to write a good speech and the best way to calmly and effectively deal with judge and audience questions. Rachael Shepherd states that: “We try to make sure that the mentors are there to give advice and help with technique but not to actually do the research”. Students in the club have some say in the debate motions chosen, although these are ultimately chosen by Tom Finn-Kelcey.
The students we spoke to at Queen Elizabeth’s say that “debating has become a ‘cool’ thing”, helped in no small part by the idea of winning through to the Debating Matters National Final in London each year. There is also a vibrant social side to the debate club, where students can come together informally, from across year groups, and new friendships are formed. Students talk of the debate club, and indeed the Debating Matters national competition, as being “more than a competition - we have a good time debating, even though we might not win”.
The debating society has retained all the key elements of the Debating Matters competition, but some adaptation has been introduced to allow for shorter debates during the earlier stages of the inter-school competition. For these lunchtime debates the students have reduced the time from 70 to 40 minutes, but retain the standard Debating Matters format for their later debates. One of the essential elements of the Debating Matters format, the panel of three judges who decide which team has won a debate, is also retained by Queen Elizabeth’s, with judges drawn from the student and teaching body. To date about 20 Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School staff have been involved as debate society judges. All debates are chaired by year 12 and 13 students as the students themselves feel that younger pupils aren’t yet ready to provide the authority and direction required for that position.
The debate club makes good use of the freely available Debating Matters debate motions and Topic Guides, and sometimes also generates its own debate motions to reflect current news issues. In these cases the students have to prepare without the aid of a Topic Guide, although students say the existing Topic Guide resources are useful on a broad range of themes such as free speech, the precautionary principal etc.
From Tom’s point of view, the culture around the debate society is now vibrant enough to be sustainable even in his absence, having a life of its own beyond the motivation of an individual teacher, which many school debate clubs rely on. During a recent period of absence, when Tom was away for some weeks, the students (led by the sixth formers) still arranged and staged some twenty debates to keep the inter-school competition programme on track.
The debate society’s sixth formers use their early in-school debates as practice sessions for the Debating Matters Qualifying Rounds, and they also serve to allow Tom Finn-Kelcey to select the team for the national competition. Uniquely to Queen Elizabeth’s, each member of the competition team has an understudy which, aside from creating a strong cohort for the national competition in the event that a student has to withdraw from the team, allows a greater degree of participation in the national competition for more students than would otherwise be possible. Student Rachael backs this up by saying:
“Our main aim is to try to get everyone involved and enjoy the learning aspect of Debating Matters; (and) taking on the harder and deeper arguments of today’s society from all different perspectives”.
What Queen Elizabeth’s do:
- Run a debate club, led by a teacher and sixth formers, and stage an in-school competition
- Hold lunchtime meetings, open to all students, to encourage wider participation in debate
- Involve sixth form students heavily in the running of the club
- Encourage younger students to get involved
- Make the debate society fun by promoting audience participation and not excluding anyone if they want to watch or join in from the broader school body