In this longread reporter Daan Welling receives an exclusive behind-the-scenes impression of the Dutch Worlds Schools Debating squad.
Over the last few years debaters in the Netherlands have had to cope with a new phenomenon: being trounced by schoolie debaters. In the Open-dominated field teenagers as young as sixteen regularly make it to the final stages of student competitions, all harnessing an unique style. They speak fast and clear, possess native control of English, are immaculately structured, and preface their arguments with terms such as ‘trade-offs’, ‘context’, and ‘group analysis’. And while the share of Dutch teams in the latter stages of worldwide competitions is declining this group of teenagers is breaking records, beating established teams such as Singapore, New Zealand and Scotland regularly at the Worlds Schools Debating Championships. How did they get so good? What are their secrets? SevenTwenty sent a reporter on their trail to find out.
The trail initially leads to the municipal library of Hoofddorp, a small urban centre sandwiched between the airstrips of Schiphol, where I am welcomed by Devin van den Berg and Lisa Schallenberg, students at Leiden University and coaches of the Dutch Schools debating team. They’re no strangers to debaters: Devin is the reigning National Champion, and Lisa Schallenberg judged the previous World Schools Final held in Singapore. On the top floor of the modern library, on a quiet and cold Saturday in November they have ushered in some of the most brilliant young minds for an afternoon of intensive debate practice.
As I enter the meeting room groups of teenagers are huddled together staring intensely at pieces of paper or in animate but hushed discussions. The topic for them today is granting amnesties to members of oppressive regimes. Two teams of three debaters will argue against or in favour of the motion. I sit in and watch one group, where Romée, a sixteen year old from Utrecht, is clearly taking the lead. She gives a lengthy monologue, and repeatedly requests to her partner, Louis, that he should give emphasis to this or that point. Louis intently receives the points, craning his neck and looking around, frantically thinking of further suggestions. Their third member, Frederique, seems initially to be a spectator, but when she makes a clever remark her two partners listen receptively and take all her suggestions on board. All in all this preparation has the appearance of a high-level chess game, with own arguments being fleshed out and possible opposition arguments and cases being discussed and pre-empted.
After half an hour of preparation their opponents enter the room and the verbal sparring begins. What follows is an incredulous match of speed essay-writing, where both teams go into deep analysis about post-conflict situations, explaining how several different groups of people will feel as a consequence of granting amnesties to soldiers part of oppressive regimes. After the debate their coaches invite them to a session of serious self-critique. Interestingly both teams seem to think the other side won. They learn from each other that the debate was a bit ‘fluffy’ and ‘messy’, that they should be more ‘concrete’ and use more examples. And on they go again, preparing for the next debate.
You might be forgiven for thinking that these teenagers are little debate robots. And Louis and Romée admit to me later that many of their friends think debating is a bit boring, that it’s a hobby they don’t talk about with their non-debating friends. But during the breaks the girls avidly discuss an upcoming prom, and having seen them at previous debate competitions I know them to be social butterflies, often being the centre of a crowd of enthusiastic teenage debaters. At the same time they are incredibly eager to learn, and two boys from Willibrord Gymnasium in Deurne test me later in the day by asking some very difficult questions about political philosophy concepts that most people don’t learn about until – if at all – years into an university study. I sneakily have to Google a bit of information before I am able to answer them to their satisfaction.
The path for these ten debaters didn’t start in this library, of course. The spring before they, and forty other lucky budding debaters, went to the Roosevelt World Schools Academy in Middelburg. In an interview with coach Emma Lucas she tells me that this is where they make the first selection for what will eventually be the team representing The Netherlands at the World Schools Debating Championships. In co-operation with University College Roosevelt the schoolkids receive a weekend of intensive coaching sessions and a mini tournament, so they get the ability to impress the coaches of the Worlds Schools team. But it is not all hard work: in the evening there is a pub quiz – where Emma, her fellow coach Menno and their tutor group danced on the tables out of joy for winning – and a party, and the children bond over crashing with students in the dorms of the college.
The Dutch Schools coaches take entertainment and group building at least as serious, if not more, as debate coaching. There are Christmas Dinners and they go to many competitions together. Emma, herself a former World Schools participant, has fond memories of going to Ljutomer in Slovenia, meeting debaters from all over the world and spending evenings exploring the sights and streets of this quaint central-European team, whilst some of their coaches unsuccessfully hide that they found places only they could enter in the city. The organisation also takes a very professional approach in chaperoning their students. Each participant has a personal mentor, who helps ensure that schoolwork and debate work are in balance and that the children are feeling comfortable in the group. Mentors also regularly update the parents and a special Parent Meeting was held last fall. The journeys to competitions are carefully planned, although a planned trip to a debate competition in Istanbul had to be cancelled due to recent terror attacks in the city. The DSDC team plans to go back to Ljutomer in March instead.
This professional organisation is a far cry from the well-meaning amateurism of its early days, where the World Schools squad was a side project for two rising stars in party politics, VVD-members Jeanette Baljeu and Ard van der Steur. Mrs. Baljeu is now alderman in the Netherland’s second city of Rotterdam, whilst Mr. Van der Steur recently took up the post of Minister of Justice and Security in the Dutch Government. Your reporter remembers Mr. Van der Steur from when he was a high school participant at the then-named Dutch Schools Debating Championships, held in a high school, where he was invited to fill the time so the coaches could select the team after a day of debating. He filled the time with stories about arguing against the Falkland War in the 1980s Oxford Union (his advice: don’t mention the Falklands!) and a story about why he gave the win in a World Schools final to the team that kept their suits on during a heatwave. Nowadays, with fifty children getting expert guidance and the selection slowly whittled down from pre-pre, to pre-, to selection, the coaches have much more time to pick the best kids and don’t have to rely on Mr. Van der Steur’s storytelling prowess.
The increased professionalism of the organisation is astounding. Head Coach Devin van den Berg has built an extensive curriculum, but also keeps individual track of the students’ performances and gives them exercises tailored to their specific learning goals. He is assisted by a larger group of coaches, many of them graduates from earlier iterations of Team Netherlands. They also call in experts from different fields, including singing lessons by a theatre school graduate in order to improve control over their voice. This approach ensures that the coaches teach their pupils about every aspect of being a good debater, not just the technical rules or skills. One debater confided in me that she used to be very nervous, and as a result would get very shouty. She received exercises to keep her cool during the frenetic stress of a debate round and as a result has much improved. They’re nowadays also aided by a technical support and acquisition staff, and even a digital learning space, developed by former head coach Menno Schellekens.
The children are absolutely gushing about their coaches. In private conversations with them they tell me that they think it’s an amazing opportunity to learn from people they consider some of the best debaters around. One of them tells me that it’s a huge improvement from coaches that you see at other sports, such as football: no one gets angry, no one yells at you, and you can come to them with any concern that you might have.
In turn, the coaches can be rightfully proud of the children they coach. Rarely do you see children who can argue with conviction and passion about an astonishing breath of topics. The children are acutely aware of current debates, with most of them being self-admitted feminists, or having well-researched and eloquent opinions on the current refugee debate.
For all of its professionalism, however, all of the work is done on a volunteer basis. Coaches and children pay for flights to remote locations like Singapore and Thailand out of their own pocket. It makes the results of the last few years – final rounds in four consecutive World Championships, and best speaker prizes in the last World Championships, when they narrowly missed the break – all the more impressive. One of the coaches, off the record, admits that he’s very proud of the children’s achievements, but there’s also sometimes frustration. Last year in Ljutomer and then at the World Schools Championships they were narrowly beaten by the US team, which has a professional multi-million dollar organisation and a domestic schools debate program with tens of thousands of participants behind them.
And funding is sometimes an issue, with not all coaches being able to make it to the international competitions.
These competitions, however, are the highlight for the teenage debaters. Speaking with Romée and Louis I notice palpable excitement about the upcoming international competition. Romée tells me that her best experience thus far was when they went to the Roosevelt Open together, a student competition. It wasn’t for the competitive success, she says (Romée and her partner Sonia made the open break, whilst Louis and five other World Schools debaters made it to the novice final, which was won by Frederique and Rianne). It was far more about the bonding experience of being together for one weekend, and having the opportunity to speak competitively against their coaches. Louis’ highlight thus far, a long weekend of prep in The Hague, also emphasises the bonding element. He adds that he loves that he learns so much from spending long days training, spending so much time together that they forgot to get enough sleep.
The goal for all of these young debaters is to board a train this July to travel to Stuttgart, Germany, where the 2016 edition of the World Schools Debating Championships will be held. There, a team of four or five debaters will face off against the best teams in the world, from reigning champions Singapore to the latest addition, team Palestine. For Emma this was her absolute highlight whilst part of the 2014 team in Thailand. ‘What’s very funny’, she tells me, ‘is Culture Night. You see all of the teams take a lot of effort in presenting their culture and being dressed in traditional costumes. Admittedly, the Dutch simply wear orange ties and bring some cheese and stroopwaffles along’. The team will face off against eight opponents on four pre-prepared and four impromptu motions, before the best teams make it into the final rounds. The preparation for these motions are serious business. I met last year’s team during preparation, both when they stayed over in an art gallery in Dordrecht and in a statuesque house in Nijmegen, where they had occupied the basement and were debating around a table tennis table. Preparing a motion about public defenders in criminal law cases, one of their members, Floris Holstege, was able to give me a lengthy explanation of various legal systems across the world. It’s no surprise that Floris, now in his first year at Leiden University College The Hague, is already an accomplished student debater, winning the Bonaparte Debating Tournament and reaching the semi-finals of the Worlds Universities Debating Championships.
But July is still far away, and for now it seems that the ten ‘pre-selection’ schools debaters are in it for the fun and the burgeoning friendships they’ve made. As I leave the library in Hoofddorp with them at the end of the day some complain about an upcoming maths test, and others discuss a TV series they’re currently watching. It’s true that these are some of the scariest debaters in The Netherlands. They’re also simply very fun people.
If you want to be updated on the progress of the Dutch World Schools squad, follow them on their website at http://dsdcfoundation.nl or through their Facebook page. High schoolers who are interested in participating at WSDC Bali 2017 should also check out the website! SevenTwenty will regularly write articles on their progress up to and including at Stuttgart 2016.