Oxford Homeless Debates: Lessons Learned

Dutch former high school debater Caspar Jacobs moved to Oxford for studies. He has taken up working at OxHoP and started up debate workshops for the homeless who attend the centre with assistance from IDEA NL. He shares his experiences with the programme on our site.


Over the past few debating sessions I have held with Oxford Homeless Pathways’ clients, there are a few observations that I have made and lessons that I have learned. I am planning to continue volunteering with OxHoP after my holiday, so these are the important results I need to keep in mind for that.

Firstly, turn-out was a huge problem. Some weeks, there was only one or no attendant at all. Of course, it is hard to keep a debate going with so few people. As the organiser, I like to keep a neutral ‘judging’ position. I noticed that motions that related to the personal experience of the clients were generally more successful than more abstract topics. ‘Legal highs should be legalised’ and ‘Everyone deserves a second chance’ were the two motions with the highest number of interested people. Both generated very interesting discussions with a lot of original arguments and perspectives.

Secondly, I realised that a free-flowing discussion has many disadvantages. During one session, the discussion got very heated with one client leaving the sessions because of what someone else said. I believe this could have been prevented if the debate was more formal. If positions are assigned, instead of letting participants defend their personal views, it is easier to avoid emotional responses. This was partly my mistake, but also a result of the low turn-out which makes it hard to organise a proper debate.

So these are the aspects I want to focus on in future sessions. Generating a higher turn-out is a main priority which I hope to achieve with more relevant motions. That will make it possible to organise more formal debates as well, which ultimately enables me to teach core skills of debating.

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