Those familiar with secondary school debating competitions even only a little bit must already have heard about Oxford Schools, the most significant and most prestigious contest of its category in the world. The annual tournament is organised by the Oxford Union debating club, founded in 1823. Students come from all over the globe to compete. The contestants’ task is to prove their excellence in the fields of argumentation and public speaking by debating motions drafted by the organisers.
Milestone Institute considers the fostering and improving of Hungarian debate culture to be of crucial importance; accordingly, one of the Institute’s oldest and most successful student organisations’ is its Debating Society. We can proudly say that this year is the fifth in a row in which Milestone hosted the National Qualifiers of the Oxford Schools debate tournament. The winner of the qualifier is awarded the honour of representing Hungary on Finals Day at Oxford. The Institute’s faith, support and commitment to Debate was justified by one of the most significant international successes of Milestone students to date: The Novice Finals were won by two of our own, Julianna Balázs and Lili Törőcsik, also students of Karinthy Frigyes and Fazekas Mihály secondary schools, respectively.
“Honestly, I was shocked when it was announced that we broke to the final of the Hungarian Qualifier, and even more shocked when we made it into the Novice Final on Finals’ Day,” Lili admitted. Even though the two students fully deserved their success, the unexpectedness of the result is still understandable: this was the first time in the competition’s history that a Hungarian team has triumphed. This is not to say that Hungarian students – very often, as we are happy to say, Milestone students – regularly succeed at international tournaments, however, these are usually contests organised in science subjects (mathematics, physics, computer science) as in these fields language and cultural differences mean little or no disadvantage, but debate in general and Oxford Schools, in particular, is an entirely different matter. Julianna and Lili could win this“away game,” debating in English, and not even against just anybody: one of their opponents in the final was the team of Harrow School, one of the oldest (operating since the 16th century), most expensive and most elite boarding schools.
Needless to say, the victory required a great deal of preparation. András Balázsy, the Debate Coach of the Milestone Institute and the coach of the two teams that have come in first and second at the National Qualifier at Milestone elaborated:
“We had three training sessions per week in preparation for the competition, for the Milestone Team and the team of the students of the American International School of Budapest, Mór Szepesi and Eduard Oti-Pasca. “In particular, we practised motion analysis, framing, comparative analysis, rebuttal and argument development, and the development of public speaking skills.” András added that students could have no idea in advance what topics they would have to debate about, and in the contest, they had no more than 15 minutes per round to prepare during which internet research is prohibited.
The diversity of topics in the debate is well demonstrated by the variety of areas about which the students had to make arguments over each round from education to the effects of tourism or to the role of personality in politics, while the Novice category’s final focused on the question of whether employers should have the right to access their potential employees’ criminal records. As a Debate Coach, András was very much satisfied with the competition’s topics: “They allowed for good debates without requiring excessive background information from the students.”
Similarly to almost all international events, Oxford Schools was forced to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic: instead of the classic format, the debating competition was held online. Fortunately, the students still gained a great deal from the event. Julianna explained: “Even though the tournament was online, we still managed to have fun and gather invaluable knowledge about debating.”
Moreover, as András says, debating via Zoom has a couple of unique advantages: “First, we were able to attend many prestigious and tough tournaments all over the world, as they all went online with the pandemic. Second, we became good at online coordination through Google docs. The social aspect of debate has indeed suffered, but we are hopeful that it is going to make a robust return with more vaccinations”.