A brief history of Finnish High School English Debating

This is a FinnBrit Feature from the Federation of Finnish British Societies magazine.
Written by Tuula Penttilä

The first debating competition was organised in 1996. The English Speaking Union in Finland (ESU) contacted me, as chair of the Association of English Teachers in Finland, to find out whether there was any interest in a high school debating competition. At that time, debating was not very common in our schools and the association welcomed this initiative. ESU Finland was responsible for the venue and prizes, while the Association of English Teachers coordinated the competition. Valerie Vainonen from ESU chaired the finals.
We invited fifteen schools from around Finland to participate in the first competition. Twelve took part and Vasa √Ėvningsskola won. For the next competition, we divided the country into eight regions with a school responsible for organising the semifinal. The final took place in Helsinki, and the winning team from Helsingin I normaaalikoulu went to London to watch the British debating final.
ESU London provided us with the rules, which we adjusted slightly to the needs of our students. Teams initially consisted of two debators, but this was changed to three in 2012 to comply with the European competition model. Allotted speech times were also reduced and points of information excluded. Points of information are now accepted again, and that has made debates livelier.
In 2003, ESU Finland ceased operating and the Federation of Finnish British Societies took over organisation of the competition. The British embassy provided the venue. With Mara Salo’s valuable help, I continued coordinating until 2007 when Mike Davis from Finn-Brit Tampere took over. Aira Ranta is the current coordinator.
From the outset, we had an annual discussion on whether we should have different categories for students from Finnish/Swedish-speaking schools and IE/English-speaking schools. At that time, there were not that many IE/English -speaking schools and we had only one category. After some years, we decided to exclude students whose first language was English. Not everybody was happy.
In 2011, we had two categories: one for Finnish/Swedish-speaking schools and one for
English-speaking ones. In the first category, there were eight teams from several semifinals and in the second category two teams without any semifinals.
In 2012, there were two finals: one for Finnish-speaking schools (in Tampere) and one for
English-speaking ones (in Helsinki). There will be only be one category in the future, as Finnish teams now participate in international competitions. Our students’ level of spoken English in Finnish/Swedish-speaking schools does not substantially differ from that of students from IE and international schools. The jury can concentrate on the content of the debate and the competitors’ debating skills rather than their knowledge of English.
‘Everybody needs debating skills.’
There have been years when it has been difficult – even impossible – to find enough schools to participate. Teachers felt that they had not been trained to teach debating and that there wasn’t time for debating in the strict curriculum. ESU organised a seminar for teachers in 2003. The instructor was sponsored by the International ESU. The Federation of Finnish-British Societies organised annual seminars in Helsinki and, when Mike Davis stepped in, he continued the seminars in Tampere. We provided teachers with videos of the finals. The Association of English Teachers published a purchasable video with an introduction to debating.
Everybody needs debating skills, but debating has not been taught at school as it has been in Britain. Lately, debating skills have been practised in the first language classes and gradually in FL classes. Teams’ successes have been greatly due to the dedication of English teachers and principals’ attitudes. Most practice has been done after school hours, when it should be included in the curriculum. Debating is an excellent method of practicing spoken language while having something important to speak about.
At the end of every debating competition, I can see how much the competitors have enjoyed it.
Organising the competition has been pretty hard work, but also extremely rewarding. I’ve been able to see a huge development, both in language skills and debating skills, since when we started in 1996.