Sparked by the success of the universities competition (WUDC) that had only been initiated seven years earlier in Glasgow, but had rapidly expanded into a major international event, the Australian Debating Federation was determined to organise an international school championships in which the Australian team could compete against representatives from other countries.
And so “the Bicentennial International School Students Debating Championships” were born. Chris Erskine took on the task of organising the event for August 1988. Whereas every university was able to send two teams to the world universities competition, practicalities required the international school championships be restricted to one team from each country. New Zealand was spurred to establish its own championships in order to select a truly national team and, over the years, participation in the world schools competition has led many other countries to do the same.
Teams from Australia, Canada, England, Hong Kong, New Zealand and the United States contested the first Championships. Historical accident (in the sense of who was able to be contacted and proved willing to send a team) meant that Britain has never been required to field a single team and the British colonies (Hong Kong and later Bermuda) were able to enter in their own right.
The teams flew into different cities in Australia for their first debates then met in Canberra for the second week of competition. Each team competed against every other team on a prepared topic, often tailored to the individual debate. Scotland and England thus debated “that Scotland should secede”; Canada and Australia “that Olympic Golds are over-valued”. Four of the six teams went through to the semi-finals, which were one and a half hour limited preparation debates from a choice of three topics (the teams ranking the topics to determine which one would be debated).
Speech times were 9 minutes with 3 minute replies. The marksheet noted: “The rules and principles for adjudicating these debates are basically the same as for Australian Championships debates”. The two exceptions were the inclusion of reply speeches (which were not common in Australia) and provision for the Affirmative to have the right of definition, provided it was not unreasonable (Australian debating gave both teams an equal right of definition). The alterations accorded with practice in New Zealand. The North American variant of giving the Affirmative an absolute right of definition was rejected, Chris Erskine noting his alarm at the “squirreling” he had seen at the world universities competition in Sydney (Affirmative teams “perverting a definition to suit a pre-prepared argument”). Unlike the world universities competition, squirreling remains illegal at the world schools championships. Unused to reply speeches, Australia determined that the Affirmative reply would precede the Negative reply for the 1988 competition.
The teams were billeted until they reached Canberra, where everyone was put up at a government hostel. The final was held in the debating chamber of Australia’s old Parliament House and, beginning a worlds tradition, was won by a single ballot majority. The close-knit camaraderie and contagious enthusiasm engendered by the first Worlds was evidenced by the fact that 6 of the 9 adults coaching teams in 1988 have remained involved with the world schools competition to this day (Chris Erskine from Australia, John Baty from Canada, David Bussey from England, Rosemary Dixon and Andrew Stockley from New Zealand, and Sue Wenzlaff from the United States); 5 of the 9 convened one of the later Championships.