Approximately 400 children from Ocho Rios, St Ann, Flanker in St James and Trench Town, Kingston recently participated in a debate programme aimed at assisting students to better resolve conflicts.
The Debate Mate Sandals Foundation Cup, now in its second staging, was first introduced to Jamaica by the United Kingdom (UK)-based Debate Mate.
Following the success of the first staging of the programme in the Flanker and Trench Town communities last summer, the Sandals Foundation partnered with Debate Mate — contributing J$2.3 million to assist with expansion and the hosting of a national competition in August 2013.
Having spent four weeks in 2012 working with youth, ages six to 20, at Boys' Town All-Age School and the Flanker Peace and Justice Centre, Debate Mate returned to Jamaica to continue their work with these groups, as well as additional youngsters from schools and youth groups in St Ann, and St Mary.
"We originally came to Jamaica due to the success of our UK programme with the Jamaican communities there, particularly in London," Scarlett McCabe, programme director of Debate Mate Jamaica, said.
Following a successful pre-pilot programme in April 2012, McCabe said the decision was taken to bring eight UK university mentors out to Flanker, and Trench Town.
"I was leading that team and we had the most incredible experience that left us with no doubt that Jamaica and the Debate Mate programme were a natural fit. We empower the young people that we work with, giving them the key skills that will help them re-engage in school and their community, and ultimately get a job," she said, adding that one of the most powerful successes of Debate Mate Jamaica is how well it helps with conflict resolution.
This year, 12 representatives from Debate Mate worked with nearly 400 youth, teaching them life skills that will contribute to their overall development. The students have competed among themselves in their communities through a series of preliminary debates with the winning teams competing in the finals at Ocho Rios High School on August 9.
"The Debate Mate programme is an outstanding initiative that has seen very promising results," said Heidi Clarke, director of programmes at the Sandals Foundation.
She explained that it exposes youngsters in Jamaica to great role models and provides them with the tools to respond in a constructive, non-violent way to life challenges.
"When you see first-hand the mind shift of the participants in one week, you realise how invaluable this programme really is," she said.
Clarke said she is now hoping the programme will become widespread in schools across the country.
Meanwhile, McCabe said the reason debate is used as a tool is that it is the best way to teach 21st-century skills that are needed.
While debating is seen as a tool to help the students to resolve conflicts, McCabe admitted that one of the challenges is getting students to speak in a positive way.
"We never have a situation where no one wants to speak; the biggest challenge is getting them to speak in a positive way," McCabe said.
She, however, pointed out that the programme was a major success, having exceeded expectations.
"We have been completely overwhelmed by how successful the programme has been. We can't believe that here today there were 100 students who were sitting quietly, competing in a debate, working together on a team, being gracious losers, getting constructive feedback through their peers and coming together and supporting all the other teams even though they might not have won their debate," she told the Jamaica Observer North East following the finals.
In the grand final, Team Movement from Ocho Rios emerged the winners after participating in a debate on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. They beat proponents Team Truth from Flanker, St James.
Queen-Aura Bennett, a student from the St Hilda's High School who was a part of the winning team, said Debate Mate has assisted her in better expressing herself.
"It gave me confidence to speak in public. I am learning how to discuss things better and how to approach a very strong argument," she noted.