Advice for judges

The Debating Matters Competition is different from traditional debating. There are no points of order or information – two schools argue for opposing positions on an issue and the judges are simply asked to pick the team that has ultimately won the argument.


Each debate begins with an introduction by the Chairperson, who introduces the student debaters and the judges to the audience. Students make their initial presentations and are then posed questions by the judges. Following this students are given the opportunity to answer questions from the audience and opposing team, and pose some questions of their own. Finally, each team is given the opportunity to sum up their argument before the judges offer feedback to the debaters, retire to deliberate about the winning team, and then return to deliver their decision.

Judges are asked to consider whether students have been brave enough to address the difficult questions asked of them. Students are told quite clearly in their own advice document that ‘Clever semantics will not impress in a Debating Matters debate’, for whilst this might demonstrate an acrobatic mind, it is likely to hinder a serious discussion, by changing the terms and parameters of the debate itself.

It is also worth noting that, whilst a team might demonstrate considerable knowledge and familiarity with the topic, evading difficult issues and failing to address the main substance of the debate misses the point of the competition. Judges are therefore encouraged to consider how far students have gone in defending their side of the motion, to what extent students have taken up the more challenging parts of the debate and how far the teams were able to respond to and challenge their opponents. One judge remarked ‘These are not debates played simply by the rather technical rules of schools competitive debating. The challenge is to dig in to the real issues.’ This assessment seems to grasp the point and is worth bearing in mind when sitting on a judging panel.

Sometimes judges have suggested that they think one side of the argument to be easier to represent than another and have, on occasion, felt inclined to mention this during the debate. Whilst this might appear to be the case, Debating Matters topics are chosen precisely because they are highly contested, real-world issues that raise tough questions for society, and for which there are strong arguments on either side of the debate. Experience of organising and attending debates across the country has also tended to show that opinions on which side of the debate is easier vary from place to place!

Debate Timing & Structure and points to consider at each stage

Opening Presentation 

Each student is given three minutes to present pre-prepared speeches to put forward the case for their side of the motion.

  • Do the students have a clear knowledge of the topic area, the ability to place the debate in a wider social and political context and an awareness of the opposing positions on the issue?
  • Is the argument well-structured and clear and have the students integrated good evidence?
  • Are there any clear failures to get points across or flaws in their arguments?
  • Is there any fallacious or overly-convoluted reasoning?

Judges’ questions 

Each judge asks ONE question each to each team in turn, starting with the FOR side, then moving on to the AGAINST side.

  • Are they able to think on their feet and respond under pressure?
  • Can they bring in extra evidence in order to reinforce a case?
  • Are they intellectually flexible enough to individually respond to different lines of argument, rather than continually re-emphasising one point?
  • Are they willing to tackle more difficult issues raised by the judges?
  • Are they able to continue to defend their position under tough questioning?

Audience questions and team exchanges 

The audience have a chance to ask questions to either side, or to make brief points, and the two teams have an opportunity to challenge each other directly.

  • Are the students able to pick out and respond to the most salient points made in the cross examination and audience questions?
  • Are they prepared to be intellectually brave and stick to their side of the argument throughout the debate?
  • Are they able to put intelligent and relevant questions to the opposing side which really get to the heart of the issue?
  • Do their responses take the debate further, or are they staying in their comfort zone and re-visiting the same ground?

Final remarks 

Students are given one minute each to put across their final remarks stating why they have made the best argument.

  • Do the students use the time provided to its best effect?
  • Do they put across a good, strong final reason for the judges to support their side of the motion?
  • Have the students progressed since the beginning of the debate?

Judges’ feedback 

Judges are asked to provide frank but constructive feedback, without revealing their preference for a winner (if individual judges feel they have decided at this stage), to each team in turn before they retire to make a collective decision about which team’s won. We ask judges to consider:

  • How have the students performed as individuals and as a team?
  • What were the strengths and weaknesses of their argument (use of evidence, intellectual sophistication, persuasiveness and passion).
  • Have the team got stuck on the semantics of the motion or have they approached the debate in the context of a wider, real-world discussion?
  • What advice would you give to the teams to improve in the future?

Audience vote & judges’ decision 

Chair takes an audience vote (just for fun!). Then the judges return to the room from their deliberations and announce their decision (N.B if this is the final debate, judges first announce the Best Individual).

  • Judges are asked to provide frank but constructive feedback to each team in turn.
  • This should focus on the strengths/weaknesses of the arguments presented, rather than a decision based on stylistic preference.


For further information about the role of a Debating Matters judge see our Judges’ FAQs. Experience has shown that judging is made easier and more enjoyable when participants have familiarised themselves with the mainstay of the debate and consulted our acclaimed Topic Guides which the student debaters will also have used. You might also like to see our Advice for Students, as well as the Debate Timing & Structure.