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Debating at the Senior School

Debating at St Mary’s Senior School: calm down, dear? 

It has been decades since Margaret Thatcher was coached in how to lower her voice and alter her manner of speech if she were to win over MPs and the wider public. But, with a current government led by, and highly represented by, male politicians who are Oxford Union members, it is worth questioning whether women and girls may still have to overcome a set of challenges and potential biases if they are to sound authoritative on the public stage?

Is it possible, in 2020, that an assertive man is perceived as forthright and strong, while a woman using the same language and manner is perceived as aggressive or overly emotional? Let’s not forget that it’s not so long ago that David Cameron retorted to a female politician that she should ‘calm down, dear’ during a Commons exchange.  

St Mary's Debating Club

We want girls to have the skills and courage to take on leadership roles, and to develop as diverse future leaders in all spheres. It is with these issues in mind, that St Mary’s Debating Club has continued to strive to strengthen girls’ resilience and ability to think on their feet with confidence, boldness and wit. 

This year, a core group of Year 10 students has attended our weekly sessions and taken part in debates and competitions. Through these experiences they have developed their ability to confront and dismantle counter-arguments, to anticipate and rebuff the opposition, to stay one step ahead of the argument, to research and present a persuasive argument, and to take command of a room of listeners.  

Is it possible, in 2020, that an assertive man is perceived as forthright and strong, while a woman using the same language and manner is perceived as aggressive or even overly emotional? 

The highlight of the Autumn Term was a friendly debating competition with The Leys School. The motion, chosen by The Leys, was ‘This House believes that Brexit is a nightmare’, with a flip of the coin one week prior to the competition deciding that our St Mary’s team would be arguing in favour of the motion.

With one week to prepare, Imogen, Isabel and Pippa put forward a confident, entertaining and well-researched series of speeches, offering confident rebuttals and dealing deftly with questions from the floor. It is hoped that a return friendly debate, hosted at St Mary’s, will take place soon. 

Competition success

In the Spring Term, two Year 10 teams entered the public speaking competition run by the English Speaking Union (ESU), a global charity working on oral literacy in young people. ESU gives young people the tools to support debating and public speaking; so they are able to talk about personal and global issues confidently, fluently and effectively. 

The girls were allocated three roles: Speaker, Chairperson or Questioner, with each role coming with its own challenges. The two issues debated by our two speakers were about whether you can define the true meaning of success, and whether the NHS should fund obesity. Both teams performed extremely well, and Amelie A. was awarded ‘Outstanding Personality’ of the evening, showing is more than possible for girls to deliver on the public speaking stage with confidence and dynamism.  

Gender and debating

As an all-female group, St Mary’s Debating Club has been reflecting on the role and impact that gender may have on debating. In considering this issue, our club members discussed what they perceive to be barriers to public speaking for girls, largely as a result of the socialisation process, which, sociologists argue, rewards girls for being polite and biddable listeners, rather than risk-takers, verbally dominant and unafraid of being combative – all attributes that are key to a memorable and successful debate. 

But if girls and women do face social and political barriers in being taken seriously as speakers and leaders, then the girls in St Mary’s Debating Club are certainly willing to rise to that challenge!  

"I joined debate club in Year 9 because it was something that had always interested me. I was, and am, passionate about expressing my views, hearing those of others and challenging them. I joined because I wanted to articulate my points more clearly, as well as building on my skills and weaknesses. The club has helped me to achieve these goals, giving me brilliant opportunities to compete in competitions. Debate club has made me feel comfortable speaking on a stage, as I continue to grow in confidence due to the supportive environment. I think debating is something everyone should experience regardless of their future career plans: it shows you how to carry on after failure and builds confidence that will last a lifetime!" Year 10 student

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