School Debating

Image of person who wrote blog. This year, during national ETB Week 2024 (11-15 March), we held our first-ever Debate Forum for our post-primary schools. This will now become an annual event on Donegal ETB’s event calendar but what does debating involve and what are its benefits to our students? In this blog, our Errigal College English teacher Jonathan Sellick, who proposed this event,  tells us more about it.

Whilst not every young person will feel comfortable standing to deliver a speech or exchanging rhetoric in front of a large audience, a well-organised debate competition can give many students opportunities in researching, writing and learning to operate as a member of a team. Indeed, skills gained by students during debating can be numerous: they learn to collaborate with others; they practise strategic thinking; and they will often be forced to put their personal opinions to one side to understand others’ perspectives. There are invariably students present who are experiencing public speaking for the first time, and it is common to witness their confidence levels visibly increase as a comptition progresses.

Throughout my career, I have gained a large amount of experience in helping students with debating -setting up clubs, entering competitions, and such. I have taken teams to prestigious events and organised ‘in-house’ versions of Question Time, student-driven assemblies and various student council forums.

Errigal College has a thriving lunchtime club scene, and so setting up debate clubs for junior and senior students over the past couple of years has been a rewarding experience.

Image of three students at a table, one standing up to speak.
Moville Community College Debate team.

Proposing a plan for a Donegal ETB event seemed to me like a natural progression. Our Principal, Danny McFadden, supported my proposal, and it was exciting to be able to submit it to our Director of Schools, Dr Martin Gormley, who immediately recognised the potential in such an event and backed it wholeheartedly.

It seemed logical to me to attempt to align the topics of the debates with Donegal ETB’s core ethos values. Donegal ETB’s Ethos Coordinator Eamonn Ryan recognised this too, and his support and expertise proved a valuable asset during the planning stage.

And so, the inaugural Donegal ETB Debate Forum was born with eight schools getting involved – Crana College in Buncrana, Errigal College in Letterkenny, Finn Valley College in Stranorlar, Deele College in Raphoe, Moville Community College, Magh Éne College in Bundoran, Mulroy College in Milford and St Catherine’s Vocational School in Killybegs.

It would become clear that the students – under the guidance of their teachers – had spent many hoursTable of debate teams and judges. preparing for the event by collating research, drafting speeches and honing their deliveries. During the debates, individuals would shine: offering anecdotes, statistics and – in some cases – pre-prepared props to underline their arguments.

The day itself (Tuesday 12 March) was extremely fulfilling. Eight teams of students and their skilled teachers from across the county arrived at The Radisson Blu Hotel in Letterkenny early in the morning to compete in both the Cup competition and the Plate competition. Ultimately, they were won by Crana College and Deele College respectively (you can read more about this here). But as our Director of Schools said upon presenting the silverware, “The standard of debate from all competing schools was extremely high.”

Group of people sitting and standing in front of a banner.
Donegal ETB Debating Forum judges, Chairs and organisers.

I was humbled by the calibre of our invited judges and chairpeople. Having given their own time, skillsand experience to the event, they spoke in glowing terms about the students they had witnessed in action.

Indeed there can be no doubt that the students did themselves and their schools proud.

We co-ordinated a two-tier tournament, the rounds of which took place simultaneously in two auditoriums, with the foyer area proving a great spot for students to converse about their topics and meet our guest judges and chairpeople.

The audience members inside witnessed fabulous performances and high calibre debate from talented students. In turn, we provided the students with an exciting opportunity and gave them a unique chance to communicate in the type of environment I hope will become familiar to them as they grow.

Moreover, the event offered a suitable arena for the students to display their talent without the rigidity that can sometimes stymie pupils’ creativity; the format of the debates recognised the formal requirements of the discourse but allowed the students the freedom to display their individual and collective expression.

Back at school, I am looking forward to establishing debate pathways for our junior students, and moving forward, to the Donegal ETB Debate Forum becoming an annual fixture on the calendar with exciting possibilities to grow.

Group of young people holding trophies in the air.
The winning Crana College team.