The World Schools Debating Championships have their genesis in Australia’s bicentennial year. Members of the Australian Debating Federation were aware that the world universities competition was coming to Sydney in January 1988. There was no similar event for secondary school pupils, yet the world universities championships showed the enormous potential for an international debating competition involving students from all around the world. The universities competition had only been initiated seven years earlier in Glasgow, but had proved highly successful and had rapidly expanded into a major international event. The Australian Debating Federation had long organised a national schools debating competition and determined to organise an international school championships in which the Australian team could compete against representatives from other countries.
And so “the Bicentennial International School Students Debating Championships” were born. Chris Erskine took on the task of organising the event for August 1988. Whereas every university was able to send two teams to the world universities competition, practicalities required the international school championships be restricted to one team from each country. New Zealand was spurred to establish its own championships in order to select a truly national team and, over the years, participation in the world schools competition has led many other countries to do the same.
Teams from Australia, Canada, England, Hong Kong, New Zealand and the United States contested the first Championships. Historical accident (in the sense of who was able to be contacted and proved willing to send a team) meant that Britain has never been required to field a single team and British colonies (Hong Kong and later Bermuda) were able to enter in their own right.
The teams flew into different cities in Australia for their first debates then met in Canberra for the second week of competition. Each team competed against every other team on a prepared topic, often tailored to the individual debate. Scotland and England thus debated “that Scotland should secede”; Canada and Australia “that Olympic Golds are over-valued”. Four of the six teams went through to the semi-finals, which were one and a half hour limited preparation debates from a choice of three topics (the teams ranking the topics to determine which one would be debated).
Speech times were 9 minutes with 3 minute replies. The marksheet noted: “The rules and principles for adjudicating these debates are basically the same as for Australian Championships debates”. The two exceptions were the inclusion of reply speeches (which were not common in Australia) and provision for the Affirmative to have the right of definition, provided it was not unreasonable (Australian debating gave both teams an equal right of definition). The alterations accorded with practice in New Zealand. The North American variant of giving the Affirmative an absolute right of definition was rejected, Chris Erskine noting his alarm at the “squirreling” he had seen at the world universities competition in Sydney (Affirmative teams “perverting a definition to suit a pre-prepared argument”). Unlike the world universities competition, squirreling remains illegal at the world schools championships. Unused to reply speeches, Australia determined that the Affirmative reply would precede the Negative reply for the 1988 competition.
The teams were billeted until they reached Canberra, where everyone was put up at a government hostel. The final was held in the debating chamber of Australia’s old Parliament House and, beginning a worlds tradition, was won by a single ballot majority. The close-knit camaraderie and contagious enthusiasm engendered by the first Worlds was evidenced by the fact that 6 of the 9 adults coaching teams in 1988 have remained involved with the world schools competition to this day (Chris Erskine from Australia, John Baty from Canada, David Bussey from England, Rosemary Dixon and Andrew Stockley from New Zealand, and Sue Wenzlaff from the United States); 5 of the 9 convened one of the later Championships.
The success of the 1988 event saw Canada offer to host a second Championships in 1990. Like Australia, Canada felt that the competition should be held in the winter of the country hosting it, so that there would be school audiences and so that teams travelling from the other side of the world would be able to do so during their summer vacations. Originally intended to be held in Calgary, when this fell through, the future of the world schools event was rescued by John Robinson offering to hold the competition at St John’s-Ravenscourt School, in Winnipeg, where he taught. Winter in Winnipeg meant the teams were fast exposed to the meanings of minus thirty degree temperatures and wind chill factors. Visits to ice hockey matches and taking part in a curling competition are highlights remembered. The tradition of exchanging pins at Worlds was given its initial impetus as various Canadian schools and other institutions handed them out to competitors at each stop.
7 teams competed in the 1990 Championships, Hong Kong not taking part on this occasion, but Israel and Scotland competing for the first time. The latter won the final, held at the Winnipeg City Hall, on a 5-4 decision, although the chair of the judging panel of local VIPs somewhat disconcertingly announced that the decision had originally been 4-4 as he had returned his ballot as a tie!
Limited preparation debating had been introduced into the preliminary rounds, there just being two prepared topics (one on Gorbachev’s reforms, the other on the reunification of Germany), for which the teams had to debate both sides. In addition to the team competition, an individual speakers’ contest was introduced. The former was referred to as “Australian style” debating; the latter as “Canadian parliamentary” debating (two teams of two speakers, with replies). The individual speakers’ contest allowed competitors from different countries to be put in teams together. The rules for the team competition were refined so that the Affirmative reply speech now concluded the debate, and the main speeches were of 8 minutes duration. The first set of rules for the World Schools Debating Council were drawn up and agreed.
1991-4: Scotland, England, Canada, New Zealand
Called “the World Debating Championships” in Winnipeg, the competition has been titled “the World Schools Debating Championships” since 1991. The number of countries competing effectively doubled from 1988-90 to 1991-4. The competition now levelled out at 12 to 13 teams, with new countries represented being Bangladesh, Belgium, Bermuda, the Cook Islands, Germany, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Peru, Singapore, South Africa, and Wales. A few of these attended just a single tournament; some returned several years later; others have participated since their first appearance.
Quarterfinals were introduced to reflect the larger numbers. Replies stabilised at 4 minutes. Britain’s hosting of the Championships in 1991 and 1992 was reflected in the introduction and retention of points of information at the Edinburgh and London Worlds. Their value for increasing the interactive nature of the debates was swiftly recognised and they have remained an important part of the “world schools” style of debating ever since. The idea of allowing for a 10 minute floor debate between the main and reply speeches, an established feature of English schools debates, while adopted for 1992, proved less durable. The names given to the teams changed to reflect British practice (Proposition and Opposition), while the marking schedule continued to vary at the host’s discretion. However, by now it had become established that half the preliminary rounds should be on prepared motions and the other half be done as limited preparation debates.
There are different highlights for each of the tournaments from 1991 to 1994. There were “away days” to Aberdeen and Cambridge. The first two days of the 1994 competition were spent in Auckland, before everyone was flown down to Wellington. Teams continued to be billeted (the only exceptions being the first parts of the tournaments in 1988 and 1994), but the relatively small size of Worlds at this time meant that there was an immediate intimacy to the competition, with everyone getting to know each other extremely fast. Heavy snowfall blanketed Edinburgh the night of the Grand Final in 1991, to the consternation of at least one finalist team which, as the scheduled start time neared, found it impossible to obtain a taxi. Fortunately everyone was delayed for the same reason! Like Winnipeg, Medicine Hat exposed teams to the rigours of the Canadian winter. Many of the debates at the 1993 tournament were shown on local television and particular emphasis was placed upon the event being a forum for future world leaders. This was reflected in the limited preparation motions, “this House believes that children have the answers to world problems”, “this House believes that religion has the solutions to world problems”, “this House believes that women have the answers to world problems”, “this House believes science holds the answers to world problems”. Memories from 1994 include the visit to a Maori marae, receptions with the New Zealand Governor-General and Prime Minister, and Pakistan making the Grand Final at Parliament (the first finalist not from Britain/ North America/ Australasia).
1995-7: Wales, Australia, Bermuda
The number of countries participating ranged from 15 to 19 during the next three years. France, Italy and Spain made brief appearances. Argentina, and the Eastern European countries of the Czech Republic, Latvia and Lithuania joined the Championships from this period onwards. The first world schools adjudicators’ guide appeared and a standardised marking schedule was agreed and adopted. By now it was established that only trained adjudicators could judge debates. The VIP judges used in some of the early finals were no longer appropriate.
Teams continued to be billeted through this period, although the first two days of the 1997 tournament were spent at the Grotto Bay Beach resort in Bermuda (to everyone’s delight!) As in 1988, teams were dispersed for the first part of the 1996 Worlds in Australia (in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Bowral), before meeting up in Canberra. The other Worlds during this period are summed up by phrases such as “the Temple of Peace” (headquarters of the Welsh Centre of International Affairs, which organised the 1995 Worlds) and “Virgo Time” (referring to the unique ability of Elizabeth Virgo, the 1997 convenor, to get everyone on buses ahead of the scheduled departure time). In 1995 there were memorable visits to St Donat’s Castle, the Tower Colliery and the Brecon Beacons national park. That year’s Grand Final, in St David’s Hall in Cardiff, was the first to attract an audience of over a thousand. Equally impressive were the 1996 Grand Final in the Great Hall of the new Australian Parliament Buildings, and the 1997 final in Bermuda, chaired by the Premier, with the prizes presented by the Governor, and broadcast live on local television. Bermuda was also notable for the scale of the parties and opportunities for socialising arranged. Such features are now expected to be part of any Worlds.
1998-2002: Israel, England, United States, South Africa, Singapore
The number of countries again rose significantly, 25 attending in 1998, 31 in 1999, 27 in 2000, 33 in 2001 and 28 in 2002. South Africa rapidly improved its ranking during this period, reaching the semi-finals in 2001. Namibia and Zimbabwe attended when the Championships were held in Johannesburg. The number of central and eastern European countries continued to grow. Belarus, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine competed for the first time during this period, of which Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia have attended every Championships since. The same can be said of Brunei and Greece, while Finland, Indonesia, Kuwait, the Philippines and Portugal all made their first appearances.
The pattern became established during this period of there being four prepared motions for the preliminary rounds (as opposed to two prepared motions and teams having to debate both sides, which had been more common in the past). The larger number of teams made billeting less practical, with the result that everyone has stayed together since 1998, enhancing the opportunities for teams to mix now that the tournament is a lot larger and teams no longer debate at the same schools. The Beit Shmuel guesthouse was used in 1998. The Hammersmith Novotel, the Ramada in Pittsburgh, the Rosebank Hotel in Johannesburg and the Concorde Hotel in Singapore have similarly become important parts of subsequent tournaments. Expanded competitions and paying for accommodation have necessitated registration fees since 1998.
The individual speakers’ contest was held for the last time in Jerusalem. Always seen as less important than the team competition, it had often suffered from timetabling constraints. The final had sometimes been held in conjunction with a banquet dinner, often with disastrous results, in terms of inappropriate humour and speakers trying to entertain a distracted audience. Since 1999, speakers’ marks in the team competition have been averaged and best individual awards presented on this basis.
1999 marked the first (and to date only) occasion on which the Worlds Convenor was a former competitor, Trevor Sather having represented England in 1991 and 1992. More teams led to the introduction of octofinal rounds. 2001 also marked the first year Worlds was held during the summer of the host country. South Africa kept to the January/ February timeslot used by northern hemisphere hosts (therefore since 1997), managing to hold the tournament soonafter schools had returned for the new academic year.
The most recent Worlds have their own highlights. Threats made against Israel and the issuing of gas masks to the general population during the 1998 Championships brought home some of the daily realities faced in that part of the world. Visits to the Old City, Bethlehem, Masada, the Dead Sea, Yad Vashem and the Knesset must rank among the most memorable of any Worlds. Visiting Cambridge, touring the British Parliament and seeing the Speaker of the House of Commons, Princess Anne, and the wife of the British Prime Minister (Cherie Booth) at some of the receptions and events will be remembered by competitors in London in 1999. The hospitality of Duquesne University and day trips to Erie and Cleveland stand out when looking back at the 2000 Worlds in Pittsburgh. The incredible experience of visiting Soweto, and being welcomed with song and dance at different schools in South Africa, remain as indelible highlights of a remarkable and awe-inspiring two weeks in Johannesburg. The Grand Final in Singapore was held in front of the largest audience to date (over 1500 people). The lion dances in the various schools, the Punjabi dancers at the Asia Night, and the competitors’ dancing at the Hard Rock Café typify one of the most well organised, spectacular, yet still friendly World Championships.
The first World Schools Championships involved six countries. Teams from all six continents compete today. Whereas teams that spoke English as a second language once comprised a small minority, they are now in the majority. Competitors make friends from all around the world. They learn that whatever the differences in their languages, accents and experiences of debating, the fundamentals of good debating remain the same. Team members express opinions, put forward viewpoints, and listen to and answer what others have to say.
During the last fourteen years, a “world schools” style of debating has evolved so as to provide a measure of consistency from one world championships to another. Yet in terms of debating, the differences between 1988 and 2002 are not unduly great. However expressed, good debating comes down to skills of preparation, argumentation, and presentation. What impresses is the scale of the World Championships today, the number of teams, the diversity of countries, the opportunities to meet so many more people, and to share in quite remarkable experiences. During the last fourteen years, the World Championships have taken hold, flourished, and become truly international.
Dr. Andrew Stockley