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‘Debating is about being a good listener’

Apprentices in the art of debate: that is the best description of the group of secondary-school pupils from Pre-University College who battled it out with each other and European parliamentary candidates on 29 March. The fitting location was Huis van Europa in The Hague.

The parents present beamed with pride as course facilitator Sammie Verbeek from Leiden University Pre-University College noted how the 11 Year 5 and Year 6 pupils had put in an ‘extra extra’ effort. As well as attending secondary school, they are following ‘PRE’ courses. And as if that wasn’t enough, this select group had registered for an extra Pre-University course that combines knowledge of the EU with debate training. That was why they had come to the Huis van Europa in The Hague. This was the culmination of the course, a grand debate, and it promised to be a veritable battle.

Three EU parliamentary candidates

Alongside the pupils, three politicians took part in the debate. All three have announced their candidacy for the European Parliament elections on 23 May: Arnout Hoekstra from the SP, Maurice Hoogeveen from the VVD and Sabine Klok from GroenLinks.

The contest consisted of three rounds of debate, in the form of the parliamentary method. Here a statement is offered, which one team supports and the other opposes. Each team gives an introduction, and the teams then bombard each other with arguments. To finish, each team defends its stance once again. The pupils were split into three teams, each with a parliamentary candidate. Each team then took part in two debates. And much was at stake too with prizes to be won for the best team, speaker and argument.

Extra extra?

The pupil were following the extra course for various reasons. Although she had some experience of debating, said Hoda Hassan, ‘I want to improve my debating skills, and I’m interested in the EU.’

Jens Mekking followed the debates with interest. He said he enjoyed seeing how a debate works, ‘And I think it is a useful skill to have too.’ 

Thirza Bom had other reasons for following the course, ‘I’m a bit scared of public speaking. I hoped that this course would help me, which is has, although I’m not completely cured. I still go bright red.’

Isa van der Schans said she wanted to find out more about the EU and debating.

Photo: clockwise from left Jens, Thirza, Isa and Hoda.

Individual ability

For the individual team members, there was plenty of opportunity to show the audience what they were capable of: everyone got several chances to speak. Sometimes the instructions had been taken all too literally: ‘stand up straight,’ for instance. The debating didn’t go without a hitch either. The pupils still need to practise producing grammatically correct sentences in the heat of battle. The jury also commented on this, giving the example: ‘We have to regulate exploitation.’ 

Although the course is over, it doesn’t have to mark the end of debating practice for these gifted pupils. Many secondary schools have a debating society, but if the schools don’t, the universities where the pupils will undoubtedly end up will have one that welcomes them with open arms: Leiden Debating Union, for instance.

EU Debat
Yulin took the prize for best speaker.

The statements

The statements that had been chosen were true to life: the EU should regulate the internal labour market, the EU should adopt a binding agreement to ensure it is climate neutral by 2040 and the EU shouldn’t interfere with the question of what constitutes fake news. The teams deftly sidestepped the gotcha in the last statement because being against something that should not happen takes some mental gymnastics.

The teams were very well prepared. All the arguments were covered with the statement about regulating the internal movement of labour inside the EU. Yes, it should be regulated because Dutch employees are being pushed out of the market by Eastern Europeans such as Romanians and Poles. No, because we have a labour shortage and therefore need Eastern Europeans such as Romanians and Poles. Yes, because Eastern Europeans are being exploited in the Netherlands because wages that are too low here are still higher than in their home country. What shone through the debate was the near consensus that the main thing that needs to be tackled is exploitation.

EU Debat
The jury: in the middle chair Jan de Boer from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to his left and right Joas Bakker and Robin Dilleop from the Leiden Debating Union.

Compliments and a few notes of criticism

The Leiden Debating Union has its origins as a group of law students who wanted to practise arguing outside lectures. It is now a fully fledged student society, complete with parties, trips and all the other things that student societies do. More and more students who aren’t studying law are joining because, as Jens already noted, debating is a useful skill. The Union meets twice a week.

The Union provided two jury members for the debate in The Hague: Joas Bakker and Robin Dilleop. According to jury chair Jan de Boer, who works at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, these two old hands at debating noticed many things that he himself hadn’t. The jury was complimentary, but had a few notes of criticism to add. ‘Debating is all about being a good listener,’ said De Boer, ‘so you can’t respond to an argument that hasn’t just been mentioned.’ The other critical note was on the incorrect phrasing. The prize winners were pleased as Punch, and so they should have been – although they do still have much to learn. 

EU Debat
The pupils pose with their certificates and the EU parliamentary candidates. Back row (l-r) Jens Mekking, Arnout Hoekstra (SP), Maurice Hoogeveen (VVD), Maurits van der Linden, Sabine Klok (GroenLinks). Middle row (l-r) Hoda Hassan, Thirza Bom, Maartje Saager, Yulin van Duijn. Front row (l-r) Liselotte Fetter, Isa van der Schans, Max Bertman, Jaap Steunenberg and Elaine Wan. Four pupils were unable to attend the debate.

Text: Corine Hendriks
Photos: Buro JP
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