Sydney’s Elite Educational Game
By Ethan Crosweller
Debating has cultivated a serious following in Sydney. Students learn the game, parents flock to it, and coaches live luxuriously off its deep pockets. It is a game with something for everyone. Yet not everyone has joined the club.
The ding of a tinny bell rung out around the room announcing that the speaker had reached his time limit. He didn’t look like stopping though.
Instead of listening quietly, the teams traded covert whispers in the middle of the speech like teenagers swapping secrets in the playground. Only the whispers weren’t gossip, they were the intellectual fuel that would power the next rebuttal.
The audience was similarly alive. Heads nodded in agreement or fell in frustration. Pens scribbled furiously and fingers tapped on keyboards, noting every word. A contest was at hand and everyone knew it.
As time passed, each speaker got up with a new piece of persuasive logic and a flashy vocabulary that flew right over my head. “Incongruence,” “Good shit”, “Tangentially.” What are these words?
Ask any student and they’ll tell you that Sydney’s favourite educational game, debating, is best avoided unless you’re a smart kid who knows how to talk well.
In the very fibre of debating exists an intellectual rigour and rhetorical flair that puts many students off-side. Much like sport, there is a driven competitiveness that separates the thoroughbred debaters from the give-it-a-go types. This is not all bad by any means. Those with a degree of natural ability and determination flourish, as they should.
However, there is an elitism to Sydney’s debating scene that seems pervasive and transcends the natural separation between those with skill and those without.
Its influence is almost imperceptible and still it reaches far and wide, silently shaping and directing the debating scene in ways it openly does not want to go. The source of it lies somewhere deep in the culture of Sydney’s schooling system and its effect is most evident in those who sit on top of the debating hierarchy.
Sydney University Debating Society
At the peak of Sydney’s debating scene happily sits the University of Sydney’s (USyd) Debating Society. On the world stage, the society has won eight world championships, nine best-speaker awards, and frequently finds itself prevailing over academic heavyweights like Oxford and Yale.
USyd debater Jack Gaskell* is all too aware of this competitive streak, “I think the defining characteristic of debating is that everyone who’s in it, bar some real outliers, are in it to win it but at the same time it’s kind of tempered by the fact that almost universally everyone’s a really nice person.”
“Everyone’s not being rude or intentionally abrasive but the fact that everyone spends so much time competing with each other and trying to be better than one another has been the thing that most defines what it is like to be part of it.”
Despite its rampant success, the society is as fundamentally social as it is competitive. Weekly Wednesday night meet-ups are held for debaters to loosen their vocal chords and gear-up for rhetorical dog-fights but dinner and drinks are often the main event.
There is nothing quite like handing someone a verbal thwacking and then sharing a laugh over a meal with them. This is exactly what Australians love about the camaraderie of sport and it can be found here in debating as well.
But this blend of social competiveness is not the only paradox. In recent years, the debating society has suffered from controversy surrounding its perceived exclusiveness. This perception is particularly rife amongst students at the university who are quick to describe the society as “elite” and “favoured”. And while this stereotype has flourished around campus, a directly opposing stereotype also exists; that the debaters are the verbal champions of the oppressed and stoic propagators of inclusion.
In 2014, an Honi Soit report found that the debating society received $330 208 the year before, almost seven times the budget of the Sydney Arts Student Society. Normally the funding structure for societies is such that funds are allocated according to size of membership. This is not the case for the debating society which receives funding regardless of the size of its membership.
The Director of Debates, Viran Weerasekera says “It’s very true that we get a lot of funding compared to other societies, I’m not going to dispute that… but I think that the funding is very well used, it funds our debaters to go and win the world championships which attracts a very good reputation for the University.”
But while the University is getting bang for its buck, it’s the students involved in other societies that are missing out on funds that could be distributed in their favour. The unavoidable fact is that when it comes to money the debating society is extremely well-endowed and favoured by the University at the expense of other groups and societies.
At the same time, it’s clear that the debating society is dominated by students who come from already privileged backgrounds with an overwhelming majority attending private and selective high-schools. The squad to this year’s Australasian championships illustrates this pointedly. The team is, as Gaskell says, “made up of next to no-one who didn’t receive a private school education or wasn’t coached by someone who had previously won a world championship.”
For students like Jack Gaskell, the harder aspects of the debating society don’t stop with its entrenched privilege but extend to its exclusive culture which he felt when he first joined the society, “for me especially in my first year when I was struggling to learn how to debate at a better level, it was the hardest part of it all because it is difficult to break into the group.”
Despite these exclusive tendencies, the debating society is also known for its steps towards including people from demographics who struggle to break into the society’s top tournaments and teams. At the Easters debating tournament the society requires that only novices compete. There is also a requirement that 50% of every team be non-cis male/women identifying, four non-cis male/women people be selected in the top three teams and a third of adjudicators must also be non cis. Quotas also exist for women, people from a minority ethno-cultural background and Government schools.
Whatever you make of these policies, many of which have been widely criticised, they are a product of a society that wants to see a change in its culture.
Though these attempted changes don’t always hit the mark. “We have initiatives and we have policies but we didn’t have a single person from a state school even trial to be part of our systems,” Gaskell says, “it’s really hard to get people to interact with the society in the first place given that a lot of people from state schools aren’t interested in debating.”
Perched on top of the debating hierarchy sits this society of contradictions; competitive and social, exclusive and inclusive. But it is what this society inherits from Sydney’s schooling system and the debating scene in Sydney more generally, that really stands out.
Sydney’s Debating Scene
In 2019, the debating season will see a proliferation of private, selective and non-selective public high-schools take part in a number of different debating competitions across Sydney. While the debating society at Sydney University is dominated by private and selective school kids, there is certainly no lack of student representation from public schools in high school and primary competitions.
According to the Arts Unit, a governmental organisation that seeks to provide state-wide programs for education in the arts, there are over 10 000 student participants and over 930 teams from Sydney’s public schools.
It is the aim of the Arts Unit to make “sure as many people around the state get to debate as possible, see themselves as able to speak up and think about stuff in a structured and rigorous way,” debating and public speaking support officer Tony Davey says.
“Hopefully primary school-kids will grow up thinking they’re part of a broader political or ethical conversation and maybe a little more likely to speak up about that stuff.”
What is true for schools in Sydney city has also proven true for students in rural NSW. “We just finished a program up and around NSW and it ended up being fifty-one days with 4200 primary-school kids,” says Tony. “If you’re in a Government high-school or primary school, this stuff is open to you and a lot of them take it up.”
But while the interest is significant there remains a marked difference between the public schools and selective and private schools as soon as you move away from grassroots efforts and towards competition.
The Arts Unit’s representative debating challenge brings together the best speakers from all three types of schooling and pits them against each other. The results each year are telling but even more revealing is the cross-section of schools that participate. The GPS, CAS and Archdale teams make up three-quarters of the teams that compete and are filled with students from private schools. In contrast, the combined high schools team (CHS) is made up of students from government schools. However, in 2018, the CHS team was drawn from exclusively selective high schools with not one student attending a non-selective public school.
While there is a huge interest in debating and participation from public schools, when it comes to competitions there is a significant difference in the success of the teams. The threads of a culture shaped by elitism runs right through Sydney’s debating scene.
Though it is a culture that has changed significantly over the years, as Tony says, “It’s super-intellectual now and maybe that’s a problem. There’s always going to be a bar where it’s elite in that sense and that elitism will never go away but it’s no longer an elitism of gender and sandstone.”
Debating in Sydney is no longer the sole home of men from wealthy private schools and is more inclusive of a wide variety of people. Yet it remains true that here is a correlation in Sydney’s schooling system between private and selective schools, and successful debating programs.
“The private schools have more money and they can pay for the coaching but all of the selective and all of the public-schools who get someone in to coach and put their hand up for extra debating tournaments – they stand up pretty well. Though there’s absolutely a difference,” Tony says.
The Story of a Family
These inherent inequalities shape not only those who sit at the top of the debating hierarchy but every-day students.
My family is a testament to this. As one of six children, my siblings and I have attended a variety of different schools and received vastly different opportunities, right down to the debating programs on offer to us.
The oldest four of us have either graduated from high-school or are in the process of completing high-school and we manage to represent the cross-section of Sydney’s schooling system. I attended a privileged private school in Sydney’s CBD. My sister, a fierce debater who is a member of Sydney University’s debating society, was educated at an elite selective school. The third and fourth oldest, my twin sisters, both attend the local public school.
“We’re not your average family, we all have had the same upbringing but different schooling which changed our opportunities and opinions on certain things. I didn’t get the same opportunities but I got the same care from my parents,” says my sister Finley, who attends the local public school, is in year 11, and surprisingly isn’t bothered about the contrast in opportunities.
But while our experiences of school have been vastly different, it’s our experience of the debating programs at each that has really stood out and led to different opportunities for each of us.
My private-school had a well-established program that was sparsely attended by students whose participation was often forced by over-zealous parents. The school would be thrilled if each team managed one win in the season. And yet the program was incredibly well-financed, coaches were payed handsomely and plucked right out of Sydney’s best University debating societies.
The selective high-school down the road that my sister attended matched skill and passion with a program that was well supplied with top quality coaches. She received 21 weeks of coaching in the school year which over 151 students participated in. Ten debating teams were victorious within their competitions.
The experience of my youngest sisters has been vastly different, “the school doesn’t really put a lot of effort into making the debating program known and it doesn’t celebrate our achievements,” says Finley, “there’s no funding for it at all.”
The debating program was run by a teacher who didn’t turn up to training sessions, leaving the coaching to be done by the students themselves. This continued until parents stepped in and organised coaches and competitions in an effort to put debating back on the school’s agenda.
The program continues to operate from the efforts of parents with little support from the school itself.
“It’s embarrassing,” says Elke Crosweller, also at the local school, “When you go to debate against a private school or a selective school and they have training every week with state-ranked coaches and the parents are all backing them, it means they’re enjoying debating a lot more than you are.”
The Final Bell
Debating is Sydney’s elite educational game, but its status as elite stems not necessarily from the game itself but as a product of a schooling system which sees the pooling of resources in the hands of a few. This is the problem that the University of Sydney’s debating society inherits and it’s a problem that pervades other educational activities as well.
President of the USU Liliana Tai says that the beauty of debating is its ability to provide a “place for people to share controversial opinions without the ramifications of feeling like they can’t attach their own personality to it.” It’s a game for a diverse range of people with a diverse range of opinions.
But in a landscape that favours certain schools over others, many students will never experience the ding of the tinny bell, the flashy vocabulary, and the rhetorical dog-fights on display in Sydney Universities debating halls.
* name changed to respect the anonymity of the interviewee