By Floris Holstege
As someone who has just one tournament left as a high school student the period after my final exams allows for some reflection on the schools circuit. Those reflections led to me writing this article in which I will argue that the national high school championships should be held in the British Parliamentary (BP) format for a very specific reason: that it will increase the number of high school students who continue debating at a university level. Although I hold the opinion that BP is superior to the current format in many different ways I will focus solely on this specific merit. As someone who has had incredible amounts of fun debating in both the high school circuit and the university circuit I am genuinely interested in how we can extend this joy to more people. I do not expect the format to change, but I personally believe that the discussion about which format should be used and how we can increase the number of students continuing their debating career at university is a fruitful one. The current format is similar to the format used at the World Schools Debating Championships. For a more elaborate explanation of the format, see the following link: http://www.schooldebatteren.nl/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Handleiding-Debatteren-voor-bovenbouw-havo-vwo-2014-2015.pdf.
There is a difference between the format used at a high school level (WSDC) and at a university level(BP). Given that most societies main goal (and in a majority of cases only) is performing well at nationals the majority of them solely train in the format used at nationals. Apart from a small group of schools that are extremely involved with debating, most of them have little to no exposure to British Parliamentary debating. This means that there is a group of people who obviously like to debate but have had no exposure to BP when they enter university. Obviously there are different reasons to quit debating at university level. My contention is simply that this group being completely new to the format is for some individuals the reason to quit or not be as active as before. We are not talking about a small group here (and even if we were, encouraging a small group to continue debating is already a great thing): the number of students participating at the national high school championships and the effort societies put into this activity is massively increasing each and every year. The ones from the schools circuit that continue to debate at a university level are now almost solely the ones who have had exposure to BP debating or to WSDC coaching (I recognize that this is also the most fanatic group and thus the one already most likely to continue. I think their continuation of debating largely has to do with their familiarity in BP, given that lots of students who are really fanatic at schools level don’t continue at university). This is a very small group compared to the massive group of students who participate at nationals. Giving this massive group exposure to BP debating will increase the number of students that continue debating for a couple of reasons:
1. Having to start off in an entirely new format can make the bar to continue debating much higher. These students are used to an entirely different format. That means that they will have to get rid of old habits and learn new ones when starting debating at their university. They obviously enjoyed debating in the past but now they have to start all over again. Compare this to when they can easily continue the format they already know and are skilled in to a certain extent at university. Since this is a format they are familiar with it also gives them a form of security: they know this format and they know they will enjoy it. Compare this to the insecurity of a new format that they don’t know and will have to put time and effort in without knowing if they will like it. A lot of students are unwilling to take that risk. Obviously some are willing to take this risk, but not everyone.
2. There is now a small group of students who regularly attend BP competitions on the university circuit. The amount of people attending these competitions is likely to increase when we change the format of nationals to BP since
A) They can now use these tournaments specifically to train for the main goal of their society. This gives them an extra reason to attend these tournaments
B) It is very scary to decide to go to a tournament of which you have no experience in the format and your school doesn’t offer any training in. When schools start training in BP for nationals their students are more likely to come to these competitions since it is less scary to go to a tournament of which you already know the format.
Personally I believe that a student having positive experiences at these types of tournaments makes it very likely that they will continue debating for a number of reasons. First of all since when they have fun at these tournaments they want to attend more of them since the first one they attended was fun. In order to do maximize the experience of these tournaments joining a debating society seems far more reasonable. Compare this to when they have no positive experiences at these tournaments since they don’t attend them and thus don’t see a direct reason to join a debating society.
Second of all when they make friends or meet nice people at those tournaments they build up a network. When you know that you like the people from our debating community you are far more likely to join a debating society. One of the key reasons why I will continue debating at a university level is because I really enjoyed hanging around with people from different debating societies including the one I will be attending next year. Compare this to when people know nobody when they start at their respective debating society.
As outlined before the group of people willing to continue debating at university level almost solely exists of people who have had exposure to BP debating before. This is obviously not true for all. But it is a shame that this is the only group willing to continue their debating career at a university level. If this group that didn’t have exposure before would be included our entire community can massively benefit. It is for that reason that we should consider changing the format of the national high school debating championships. It is reasonable to aim for more people getting more joy out of debating by continuing this activity after high school.
The main concern with this change of format I have encountered is that lots of people believe that schools will no longer continue to participate for three reasons:
1. “BP is too difficult for most schools”. I have a couple of responses to this:
1. The role of the third speaker in the current format is also extremely confusing for most schools. There are a lot of different ways to fill in this role, which could potentially make it very difficult. Arguably, a whip speech in BP has a much clearer role than the third speech in the current format. If schools can already fill in the current role then why should they have problems with BP?
2. I am just going to contest that BP debating is way more difficult. Especially when the debate doesn’t have a really high level (which, let us be realistic, is the case with most debates at the national championship), the opening half is approximately the same as in the current format and the extension can be explained as “bringing new arguments”. The only extra difficulty I really see is that BP is more tactical. This extra difficulty only really comes into place at high-level debates, and students who are in those already have the experience to grasp this.
3. If BP really is too difficult, why then do we see lots of students participating in school debating where BP is already the norm, mainly the entire United Kingdom? Dutch students are not less competent than them and thus can handle the difficulty of the format (It might be the case that even more students would have participated in the UK if the format would not have been BP. This is merely an example of where BP can function succesfully as a dominant format for the school circuit).
2.”Changing the format again requires a lot of extra effort for schools which they are unwilling to put into it” – again a couple of responses:
1. The format has changed many times before and time and time again schools where willing to put extra effort into this activity. Speaker times and roles have changed many times but the number of schools participating has only been growing.
2. Schools will recognize that the extra effort of learning their students to debate in BP is all worth it when considering that their students can enhance the reputation of their school by participating and possibly winning the national championships. Even if schools are unwilling to put in effort, students themselves have shown to be extremely motivated to do well at the national championships and thus will be participating again, regardless of the format.
3. Almost every school receives formal training from Cogency once they sign up for participation. I have faith in their trainers to communicate this format to schools in a way that will make sure that they won’t have to put in lots and lots of effort into understanding and practicing it since professionals who are experienced in the format help them.
3. “Schools want to let as many students as possible participate and thus will prefer other tournaments over the national championships”
1.In a BP format you could allow schools to send up to two teams which would make sure just as many students as in the current format can participate.
Schools are already keen on sending multiple teams to BP tournaments such as Oxford schools and Leiden schools
2. As much as schools and students dislike not having one single coherent team of four people, the pride they get out of participating and doing well at the national championships outweighs this. That means they will still be participating.
Lastly, I don’t see a problem with letting prepared motions exist in the new BP format. Some might think that using prepared motions in BP disadvantages the second half. From my experiences at the Intergymnasiaal tournament this went fine and was not disadvantageous for the closing half. At its last edition the prepared final was even won from closing opposition. I would have run a fairness test on its tabs if they were available online. If anyone has experiences or thoughts about BP being unbalanced with prepared motions than I would be interested in hearing those. Motion difficulty would also remain the same with BP as the new format.
If there are other concerns with BP as a format for the national high school championships then I would really like to hear those. Let us however try to keep this discussion focused on which format allows for the best transition between the school circuit and the university circuit, and not turn it into a unspecific discussion. It might also be the case that BP puts lots of students off from participating at university. I haven’t identified why, but if that is the case please comment bellow. There are people in our community with far knowledge on this topic than I and I look forward to hearing from them.