Debating Matters History

It all started in the summer of 2002…
Debating Matters was initially the name of a book series published by Hodder & Stoughton in partnership with the Academy of Ideas. In summer 2002, at a launch party for this book series, a physics teacher – Mr David Perks, Head of Physics and convenor of the debate society at Graveney School, South London – suggested the need for a new schools debating competition that would focus students’ attention on the intellectual content of contemporary debates more than rhetoric.

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This spring, the Debating Matters team, supported by colleagues at the Academy of Ideas and accompanied by a number of experienced UK Debating Matters judges, spent two weeks in India running the Debating Matters India regional finals (Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai) followed by a two and half day day residential National Final event in Delhi that mirrored the extensive national final programmes developed for the British competition. Debating Matters hosted, in partnership with the University of Ulster, a second mini-competition in Northern Ireland – again the standard was extremely high. Eight Debating Matters alumni, including one from India, attend the North West and North Wales Regional Final in Manchester and set a new benchmark for alumni involvement in the competition.
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The Wellcome Trust awarded Debating Matters a second Engaging Science Society Award for a further three years, in the spring of 2008, recognising the achievement and contribution of the competition to engaging young people in debate about the implications of biomedical science. A formal Alumni Network was launched with an accompanying Facebook group established and promoted by Debating Matters alumni and intern Rebecca Sayers. Debating Matters hosted, in partnership with the University of Ulster, a mini-competition in Northern Ireland for the first time and used this as a test bed for a new Regional Final format which would involved more schools and more debates – the standard in Northern Ireland was superb. Debanjan Chakrabarti, from the British Council East India office, participated in the judging of the Regional Finals with a view to inviting Debating Matters to pilot the competition in India.

The fourth National Final was hosted at the Wellcome Collection in the summer and was widely recognised as the best yet. There was an especially strong alumni presence demonstrating the positive impact of promoting a more formal Alumni Network. A decision was made to expand the capacity of the competition by 50% to allow up to 192 schools to participate in 2008/09. Following the enthusiastic reaction of Dr Jack Watters, Vice President of External Affairs at Pfizer Inc., Pfizer agreed to joint fund with the British Council a Debating Matters India pilot. Tony Gilland and Helen Birtwistle travelled to Kolkata and Delhi to work alongside Sujata Sen, Director of British Council East India, to promote the competition to Indian schools and teachers. It received a very positive response.

By autumn 2008 188 schools signed up to participate in Debating Matters 2008/09 necessitating the running of 48 qualifying rounds across Britain. Teachers and alumni were involved in the running and chairing of debates more than ever before. In addition, an experimental debating event for 15-16 year olds, employing an amended Debating Matters format, was run in partnership with Aimhigher Peninsula Programme and proved a great success. Abigail Ross-Jackson, a student debater in the pilot competition of 2003/04, joined the Debating Matters team to assist with the expanded programme of work. Meanwhile, 250 Indian schools signed up to participate in an online elimination test run by the British Council India in order to pick 48 lucky schools to participate in the Debating Matters India pilot and the subsequent live qualifying events held in Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai.
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The third National Final was hosted at Kings College London and the National Portrait Gallery in summer 2007. Alumni of the competition returned to assist and work with the school teams, providing them with advice and encouragement in a mentoring capacity. The Debating Matters Question Time debate was introduced for the first time, allowing students to quiz key politicians and political commentators.
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The first Debating Matters print newsletter was produced in spring 2006 to provide schools and students with news about the competition as well as to promote the ethos of Debating Matters and provide advice on how to do well.

The second National Final was again hosted at Goodenough College in the summer of 2006, and the programme was extended to become a three day residential event allowing for additional ‘extra-curricular’ events to be put on to give students an appreciation of the wider world of political, social and cultural ideas. In this way, it was emphasised that Debating Matters aimed to be more than a schools debating competition and that the debates were important in and of themselves.

In autumn 2006 the competition held its first first survey of teachers participating in the competition was undertaken.

Following James Gledhill’s departure to complete his PhD in Political Philosophy at the London School of Economics, Helen Birtwistle joined the Debating Matters team as the competition’s judges and press coordinator.
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The now acclaimed Debating Matters Topic Guides were introduced and published for the first time in the spring of 2005, to assist students in their preparation and to help them to appreciate the ‘real world’ quality of the debates they were being asked to engage in. Topic Guides have subsequently become another defining feature of the Debating Matters experience.

James Gledhill joined Tony Gilland to assist taking the competition forward and played a key role in shaping the content and quality of the Topic Guides.

The first National Final of the Debating Matters Competition was held at Goodenough College in London in the summer of 2005. Expert witness seminars, provided by individuals involved on a day-to-day basis with the issues the students would be debating were added to the National Final programme for the first time. An announcement was made that the competition would expand from 32 schools to a maximum capacity of 128 schools in the following year. The television production company Brook Lapping TV filmed the debates and a DVD was made for distribution to schools interested to participate in the competition for the first time.

By autumn 2005 117 schools signed up to participate in Debating Matters 2005/06 and 32 Qualifying Rounds, were held at local schools across Britain. Richard Reynolds, a finalist in the 2004/05 competition, interned with Debating Matters and threw himself into to travelling the length and breadth of the country to run and chair 13 of the qualifying rounds.

Justine Brian joined Debating Matters as the competition’s National Administrator.
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A final for the Debating Matters Pilot Competition was held at Tate Britain in March 2004. The winners were Queen’s School from Bushey, Hertfordshire – a school that has performed strongly in the competition ever since.

In order to expand the work of Debating Matters and to establish it as a new schools debating competition on a larger scale, the Academy of Ideas applied to the biomedical charity the Wellcome Trust for a three year long Engaging Science Society Award. The application was successful and an award was made in the autumn of 2004. Tony Gilland, Science and Society Director at the Academy of Ideas, took charge of taking Debating Matters forward.
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Based on the success of the concept pilot the Academy of Ideas put together a proposal for a more extensive pilot of eight one-day events each involving four schools, to take place in the winter of 2003. Dr Gill Samuels, then at Pfizer UK, excited by the potential of the project to encourage young people to dig behind the newspaper headlines and to develop informed opinions on diverse topics, organised for Pfizer to sponsor this pilot project. Though Dr Gill Samuels has since retired, Pfizer’s significant support of Debating Matters has continued to this day. Philip Walters instituted Hodder’s prize sponsorship of the competition with substantial donations of books of a school’s choice for the winning and runner-up teams at each event. This prize sponsorship, now expanded, has continued to date.
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It all started in the summer of 2002…

Debating Matters was initially the name of a book series published by Hodder & Stoughton in partnership with the Academy of Ideas. At a launch party for the book series in the summer of 2002 a physics teacher – David Perks, Head of Physics and convenor of the debate society at Graveney School, South London – suggested the need for a new schools debating competition that would focus students’ attention on the intellectual content of contemporary debates more than rhetoric.

Encouraged by Claire Fox, director of the Academy of Ideas, and Philip Walters, managing director of Hodder & Stoughton, Dave Perks conceptualised a format that he hoped would achieve this objective. In December 2002 the Academy of Ideas organised a concept pilot involving eight schools in a day of debate, hosted by the British Library and supported by Hodder, in December 2002. The day was a tremendous success. The key aspects of the format conceptualised by Mr Perks – the early provision of debate motions and allocation of for/against positions to encourage thorough preparation; the central role of a panel of diverse judges in cross examining the students about their opening statements and providing critical feedback; and the importance attached to audience contributions recognised through a Best Individual prize – became the cornerstone of the success of Debating Matters.
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Interested in Taking Part?


Thursday 27 June:
Oxfordshire Championship at Oxford Union, in partnership with Magdalen College School and Oxford Festival of Arts

Friday 5 July:
North East Championship at Durham Sixth Form Centre


Find a list of all our previous championship events here.


Bernie Whelan, our DM coordinator, is raising money for Debating Matters. To stage one of our Championships for six to 12 teams costs £6,000. Find out more on Bernie’s Wonderful fundraising page.


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