By ROSALIND GRIFFITHS
Three pupils from Sandwick Junior High School can claim to be the Highlands and Islands’ top young renewable energy experts after winning a schools debate in the Scottish Parliament on Friday.
The team of 14-year-olds Joe Christie, Ceidiog Saxelby and Saibh Finlayson triumphed in the debating contest about alternative energy, scooping the coveted top prize of a holiday in Iceland.
They had been studying the subject of alternative energy since October, and travelled to Edinburgh with their English teacher Donald Murray and English and History teacher Yvonne Malcolmson.
The event, now in its second year, was the Big Green Challenge in which more than 40 teams from the Highlands and Islands took part. The grand final of the competition, organised by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, comprised teams from Sandwick, Arran High School (Isle of Arran), Gairloch High School (Wester Ross) and Portree High School (Isle of Skye). All four teams had won two previous heats to make it to Holyrood.
The first finals (known as such rather than semi-finals because teams were marked on a points system) and the grand final being held on the same day made it a nerve-wracking event.
The Sandwick team’s first final was a tough contest for the trio, who had to argue against the statement: “This house believes that renewable energy will see us through the credit crunch.”
But whereas the team had known which way they had to argue for this first final well in advance, the grand final was different.
For this debate the team were only told five minutes in advance which side of the argument they had to support, meaning they had had to prepare speeches on both sides. Sandwick found they had to speak in favour of the motion: “This house believes renewable energy is essential for the sake of our environment and securing our future energy supply.”
Joe, who did the four-minute introductions in the debates, said that it was very nerve-wracking: “I was totally freaked out.” Winning the first final was probably his best moment, as from that point the Sandwick team knew they had won a prize – even as runners-up they would have gone to the Eden project in Cornwall. “Once I knew we’d nailed it, that was my happiest moment. I knew we were doing quite well.”
Ceidiog, who had to speak for six minutes, said of the whole experience: “It was really good, terrifying but exciting.” And Saibh, who did the final five minute speeches, said: “It was terrifying, especially the first debate. I thought we’d lost.”
And it was not just an exercise in delivering prepared speeches – the pupils had to be prepared to answer challenges from the opposing team.
All three pupils said they enjoy drama – Joe may opt for a career in it and Saibh is considering law – and their acting training helped them to keep calm in the Holyrood Committee Rooms, where they had an audience of political and business leaders, school pupils and teachers, as well as the judges. Not only that, but they were being filmed – the debates were broadcast live on the Scottish Parliament’s online TV channel.
Back in Sandwick, fellow pupils were able to watch the debate on the big screen – anecdotally it had the atmosphere of a football match.
Mr Murray described the team’s success on the day as “spectacular”. The three pupils showed “outstanding talent”, he said. “They are really well-informed about alternative power, and were really well-prepared. Adults would have trembled before them. The were like combine harvesters mopping up the opposition.”
Mrs Malcolmson said she was “very proud” of the pupils, who had worked on thousands of words of independent research and had to produce equally convincing arguments for and against their subjects. “They did exceptionally well, it was fantastic for 14-year-olds. It was a long time to talk, they had to memorise a lot of facts and update on a daily basis.” Each member of the team had been strong, she said, which gave them the edge over their rivals. Two had already had experience of debating when they won the Althing schools trophy in the summer (which it is hoped will become an annual event).
Both teachers said that the win had been very much a team effort, and paid tribute to all those outwith the school who had helped them since preparations began in October.
These include SIC deputy chief executive Willie Shannon, councillors Bill Manson, Florence Grains, Rick Nickerson and Alistair Cooper, David Thomson and Aaron Priest from Viking Energy, Billy Fox of Sustainable Shetland, Neville Martin of SHEAP and former head of Shetland College Gordon Dargie, all of whom supplied the pupils with information and prepared them for their debates. Mr Murray said arguing with adults, not children, had been “fantastic training”. Everyone involved also thanked Tavish Scott MSP for his support.
Mr Scott tabled a motion in the Scottish Parliament recording the success of the Sandwick team on winning the Big Green Challenge debate, recording that the parliament recognises that the hard work all the teams put into the competition researching renewable energy reflects its importance to the Highlands and Islands.
Congratulating the pupils, Mr Scott said: “I was pleased to meet Joe, Ceidiog and Saibh on Friday before the final started and to be able to wish them all the best in the competition. Clearly they, and their teachers, had put a lot of hard work into preparation for the event and I am delighted that this paid off when they won the debate.
“Speaking in the imposing Holyrood Committee Rooms can be intimidating, but the outcome shows that the Sandwick team had the skills and confidence to take on the competition and win. They are a credit to Sandwick and to Shetland.”
He said he hoped they will enjoy their prize a trip to Iceland, which will include a visit to the Blue Lagoon and to the geothermal area of Geysir.
The win will have other benefits too. Mrs Malcolmson said she and the team had made a lot of friends in their time in Edinburgh and hoped to make contact with young people in Iceland. There was now a “healthy” debating ethos in the school as debate is important across the curriculum. The pupils’ research will also be a valuable teaching resource, and a DVD of the Holyrood debates will soon be available.
The Big Green Challenge, now in its second year, is a project which has helped pupils in 1st to 3rd year across the region gain a better understanding of renewable energy.
Chairman of HIE Willy Roe, who was also chairman of the judging panel, commented that the standard of debate had been so high it may not be the last time the speakers would appear in the Scottish Parliament.