Jamie Macfarlane's Learning Story


When I was at college I volunteered at a local state school in inner city Oxford (UK) teaching young kids between the ages of 14 and 18 how to debate. Many of these kids had absolutely no interest in politics or debating. There were many kids who just sat in the back and played on their cell phones or chatted loudly to try and disrupt the lesson. They were very skeptical of me, as I came from Oxford University, was not much older than then them and came from a different background from them. Initially most of the kids completely ignored me and only behaved when my supervising boss stuck his head around the door to check in what was going on. However over time, I became really close to these kids and they started to get more and more engaged. One of the kids was a boy, who could not even tell his group of friends that he was attending debating classes and would sneak in the back door so he could come to my debating classes undetected by his school mates, who saw debating as a fairly lame pastime. After working with these kids for a year and a half, I started to realize that the top girls in the class had become very talented debaters. We started travelling around England entering these girls into more and more competitions and they kept doing better. Eventually in March 2009, they entered the largest competition in the country, the Cambridge University Debating Competition. This competitions is dominated by private schools like Eton, who can afford to spend a lot of money and resources into training their debating teams. In fact the Competition had never before been won by an English state school. My girls entered along with over 800 schools in the country, including all the best schools where fees are over $30,000 a year. My girls kept winning their rounds and beating these higher placed teams until we finally reached the final. The Debating Chamber was completely packed and myself and the rest of the kids from my class sat on the edge of our seats on tenterhooks. After a furious debate about whether crimes committed by British and American troops in Iraq were war crimes, it was announced that our team had won. Cheney School was the top debating team in all of Britain and the first state school to gain this title. The entire class and the entire school was utterly elated and overwhelmed by the girl’s achievement. The girls were interviewed in the papers and photographers came to the school. More than just the thrill of victory, this experience blessed me with the opportunity to teach and get to know a group of fifteen kids who were as impressive, as interesting and as close friends as anyone I met at Oxford University.