By 'tournament' I mean a competition which takes place over one day or one evening, involving several schools. There are many of these available, some run (with varying degrees of organisational skill) by university students, some run by charities like the English Speaking Union and Debate Mate, and several run by Debating For Everyone.
You may, however, decide you want to run your own tournament. This has advantages and disadvantages.
- No entrance fee
- Home advantage for your own students
- Raises the profile of your school and its debating offer
- Opportunity to shape the tournament in the way you want
- Some (relatively minor) expense to your school
- It takes a lot of time and energy to set up and run
I can mitigate at least some of the second disadvantage with this guide to running your own debating tournament.
1. Which format?
- Easier for beginners
- Lends itself to long prep
- Allows audience to join in with points from the floor
- Best for Y5-8
British Parliamentary (BP)
- Challenging and exciting
- Short prep element adds to challenge and rewards students for being well informed re current affairs
- Focus on role fulfilment adds another level of challenge
- First to fourth place ranking makes for more nuanced judgements
- Best for Y9-13
2. Evening or day?
- Less demanding of time for staff and students
- Students are already on the premises
- Fewer issues re keeping school building open
- Less time, so fewer debates
- Students may be tired / fretting about homework after a long school day
- Other schools competing may find it difficult to get to your school in time
Day (i.e. Saturday)?
- Ample time for lots of debates
- Feeling that the whole day is specially dedicated to debating
- Buzz and intensity of atmosphere
- Fewer clashes with other school activities
- Easier for other schools to get to tournament
- May be difficult getting school to open on weekends; catering may not be available
- May clash with students' family commitments / weekend activities
- Takes a big chunk out of teachers' (and students') lives
If you teach in a boarding school, the parameters will be different. While the building will be open and students present more or less 24 /7, you will have more rival activities competing for their time.
3. Whom to invite?
- If you already have an established network of schools you debate against in your area, you can tap into this to recruit contestants. Teachers are usually very grateful to have someone else organise debating opportunities for their students, so you will earn a lot of goodwill. A tournament also allows you to establish relationships and connections with colleagues at other schools; always a useful resource, not just for debating!
- If you don't have this network, talk to your sports department. They will have a list of local schools they play fixtures against. As a starting point, send an email to the Head Teacher of schools on the fixture list with a request to forward it to the teacher i/c debating.
- Two teams (of three for Extended Mace, two for British Parliamentary) per school is optimal, allowing enough opportunities for students without overwhelming your organisation.
- Above all, start planning early. I recommend at least a term's lead time. Before you do anything, book your date and venue with whoever is in charge of these matters on senior leadership. This will also let SLT know that you are doing this wonderful thing to raise the school's profile.
4. How to structure the tournament
- For an evening tournament, you have time for two debates.
- For an all day event, you have time for up to six debates.
- Set up a schedule of debates which ensures that each team has, as far as possible, an equal mix of proposition / opposition (Extended Mace) / different positions (BP). Allocate rooms and timings as necessary, including scheduling for prep time. Allow some slack for the inevitable delays. Allocate teachers to supervise prep time to make sure no one is illicitly accessing the internet. If you are using Extended Mace, I recommend having a mix of prepared and unprepared motions. Share the schedule with participating schools and your students at least a week in advance (though obviously do not share unprepared motions).
- If you are using BP, draw up a shortlist of possible motions (approx. twice as many as you need). Meet with teachers at the beginning of the tournament to agree which ones you will use. This avoids awkward situations where one team debated the exact same motion the week before / a particular motion causes distress to a student for pastoral reasons.
5. How to judge it
- As part of your scheduling, allocate neutral judges to each debate. Ideally there should be two per debate. Older students can do this (and it is very good experience for them), though make sure they are briefed on how to give appropriate feedback, getting the balance of encouragement / areas for improvement right.
- If you can, draw up a mark scheme. Even better, film a sample debate with your students and allocate them marks. These two resources can be shared online with judges to train them. If you don't have time to do this, Debating For Everyone has these resources ...
6. How to rank it
- For Extended Mace, I suggest two points for a win, one for a draw, none for a loss. Rank teams first by points, then by speaker marks (if you have a mark scheme).
- For BP, four marks for first place, three for second place, two for third place, one for fourth place. If you have a mark scheme, placings can by determined by speaker marks, and speaker marks can be used to differentiate teams tying on points.
- Set up, and update during the tournament, a spreadsheet for results. Use 'sort data' after each round to put teams in rank order. Gather teams together after each round and display the spreadsheet on a screen to add to the competitive buzz.
- Make a big deal of the announcement of winners at the end of the day!
6. Anything else?
Adolescents need lots of it, at frequent intervals, preferably containing large quantities of sugar and salt. Teachers also need feeding, and value regular infusions of caffeine to keep them going. Make sure you book catering with the school well in advance, and also agree from which budget it will come. Sell it to the school on the grounds of outreach / publicity. If the school is not able to meet the cost, it is reasonable to ask schools competing to make a contribution. If the tournament is on a Saturday and the school cannot provide catering, make sure all students (and teachers) know to bring enough food to meet their calorific needs. Set up a teachers' rota for coffee / tea runs to the local cafe.
Trophies / certificates
These are an additional expense, but they mean a great deal to students, and massively help to raise the profile of your tournament and your school. Have the winning school's name engraved on the trophy / write students' names on the certificates. Having a trophy with 'Neasden Academy KS3 Debating Competition' displayed in someone else's main corridor all year will do wonders for your school's reputation, while having a certificate with your school's logo proudly displayed on a student's bedroom wall will make them think warmly of you.
Make sure as many people as possible know about your tournament, both before and after. Subject to safeguarding protocols, take photos and post them on social media / your school newsletter / website. If your students win, ask your Head Teacher to present the trophy to them in assembly.
Running your own debating tournament is hard work, but also brings immense rewards.