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Debate-Ed The Launch

The Debate-Ed programme officially launched on Friday 18 September at Lanyon Bowdler's Shrewsbury office.

This was a fun filled event with students from Priory School, Meole Brace School, the Grange School and Shrewsbury Sixth Form College in attendance. We were honoured that the Mayor and the Mayoress attended the event. There was also the support and assistance of a number of staff from Lanyon Bowdler.

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This was a great opportunity for all the supporters and participants to meet and celebrate the beginning of a great new initiative. In particular, the schools got to meet the sixth form students who would be their mentors for the duration of the programme. This was a group of eight impressive students from the local Shrewsbury Sixth Form College. The students had applied for the position earlier in the year and had been interviewed by Kay Kelly and Holly Edwards. They were selected on the basis of their ability to encourage and help students develop their skills, their passion for debating and teaching, and their ability to comprehensively analyse an argument from multiple sides.

The event started with a speech from Kay Kelly who is the head of clinical negligence at Lanyon Bowdler. She commented that there is a clear compatibility between debating and the legal world as both require critical thinking, communication, research and enquiry skills. She spoke about how it is better to debate a topic without settling it, than to settle a topic without debating it. This is why one of the key goals of the programme is to teach the students to question the opinions that they and others hold, to learn how to analyse a topic and to understand there are usually two sides to every argument. This is a really important skill which requires a mature approach to topics and an understanding that few topics are black and white.

Following Kay’s inspirational speech, the students were then treated to an address by the Mayor of Shrewsbury. He spoke to them about the importance of debating and of discussing topics thoroughly. He commented that he often debates in his role as Mayor with various councillors and that the ability to debate will be a useful life skill for all the students.

The rest of the event involved a lively discussion on a number of controversial topics. The students were put into groups with their mentors, staff from Lanyon Bowdler and their teachers. They were then given a specific topic to discuss and decide whether they agreed with it or not. Following their informal discussions in their groups, they were then asked to feedback their ideas to the rest of the room.

The students from all the schools displayed a high level of understanding of quite complex and serious topics, as well as a good understanding of how to put their point across. They clearly had a great deal of potential and it will be wonderful to see how much they will progress by the end of the programme.

The topics discussed were:

Banning alcohol

In general the students seemed to be against banning alcohol. One reason the students gave for not banning alcohol was that a ban would impact too much on those who do drink in moderation. They also commented on the availability of alternative solutions which would be less restrictive. For instance one student suggested that instead of banning alcohol outright there should instead be a limit on the amount of alcohol an individual can purchase. In support of a ban, some students commented that alcohol does have a number of negative health and behavioural consequences.

Lowering the voting age

Another topic was whether the voting age should be lowered to 16. This resulted in a very lively discussion on the tables, as there were a number of people who felt strongly that 16 year olds should be able to vote, and equally those who felt they were not mature enough. One of the mentors argued 16 year olds should be able to vote as by that age they may already be in employment or be married. In fact one of the students commented that a 16 year old who has been working as a young carer for a parent or relative, could be a person of greater maturity and experience than a 19 year old. Furthermore, the government’s policies will often affect a 16 year old as much as they affect an 18 year old. On the other side of the argument was the view that 16 year olds do not have sufficient life experience, knowledge or maturity to make an informed decision when voting.

Obese people should pay for their own medical care

One of the interesting topics discussed was whether obese people should be forced to pay for their own medical care. One of the teachers felt quite passionately that this should not happen as it would discriminate against a significant proportion of society. Students also raised concerns that obesity is not always a person’s fault and it could be unfair to penalise them for this. One student said that in particular, we would have to consider what we deemed obese because athletes such as rugby players could be deemed obese if you based it on their BMI. Another student also noted it was not clear what medical care they would have to pay for. For instance, if they were hit by a car and suffered injuries which were not related to their obesity would they still have to pay? In contrast, some of the students recognised there is an argument that the NHS should not have to use public funds to treat those who have essentially inflicted their illnesses upon themselves.

Parents should monitor their children’s phones and social media accounts, including reading their messages

Another controversial topic was whether parents should monitor their children's phones and social media accounts. A lot of the students felt quite strongly that this would not be appropriate. One of the students commented that while she would feel hurt if her parents looked at her phone, she did feel that if she was a parent she would want to look at her children's phone in order to protect them. Another student commented that if she was having problems such as being bullied, there would be obvious signs so her parents could approach her and ask about it rather than invading her privacy. In fact, if the parents then went on to read her messages and invaded her privacy, this might result in her feeling more isolated and more upset than she had before. Most of the students gathered there is a need to balance the role of the parent in protecting their child and ensuring their safety, with the child's right to privacy.

This is a great debate to do with young students, as it introduces them to the idea that there is sometimes a trade-off between your right to privacy and the need for protection. This can be applied in a number of different debates. For instance, the police are allowed to invade your privacy if they believe you have committed a crime, or may commit a crime in the future. It is felt in this scenario the need to protect others from the crimes you may commit or have committed, is great enough that it justifies violating your right to privacy. The government also use a very similar rationale when justifying antiterrorism measures.

We should continue medical testing on animals

The final topic discussed was whether we should continue testing on animals for medical purposes. This was a controversial topic and it was felt there was no definite answer. One of the students said we should continue testing on animals for medical purposes, as it will enable us to save human lives and this is important enough that it outweighs the cost to the animals. In support of this, a mentor explained there is some evidence that the alternatives to testing on animals are much less effective, particularly when you need to see how a certain method of treatment or disease works in a living organism. He explained this is difficult to achieve if you are using non-living specimens. In contrast, some argued it is unacceptable to allow the pain and suffering of animals even if it ultimately benefits us.

Feedback from the schools

The event was a great success, with Laura Bottomley from Priory School commenting that “The launch of Debate-Ed was an exciting start to what I’m confident will be an amazing initiative for the students at the Priory School. This unique scheme will enable our students to forge further links with the community and other schools, as well as honing many transferable skills. I'm thrilled that such a wonderful opportunity is available to them.

“Today's launch was a wonderful opportunity to meet the young people who are going to be involved in Debate-Ed, as well as the sponsors and supporters. The whole room was engaged in a terrific debate, which created a real buzz about the debating programme. The speeches were inspiring.”

Similarly Emily Lewis from Meole Brace School commented that both she and the pupils are really excited about debating following the launch. The students were genuinely inspired by the topics and talked about those discussions and others on the way back to school.

So far the program is off to a great start, and we are looking forward to holding the regular sessions starting week commencing 28 September at Priory School, Meole Brace School and the Grange School, which are all based in Shrewsbury.