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Prison debating team to take on Oxford and Cambridge Unions

Winners of the Debating Matters Beyond Bars final, taking place today in G4S-managed HMP Birmingham, will face a team of debaters from the Oxford and Cambridge Unions, the oldest continuously running debating societies in the world.

Today, two teams from HMP Birmingham will face off in the grand final of the Debating Matters Beyond Bars initiative, a pioneering UK prisoner debating competition. The Debating Matters format of debating, touted as the toughest in the UK, has had great success in schools across the country, but this is the first time it has been run inside a jail.

Nearly 40 prisoners have taken part in rigorous training over the summer with the Debating Matters coaches, culminating in a series of heats last week, which saw six teams battling for a place in the Grand Final.

The two teams to emerge victorious (the West Side team and Library team) are now preparing to go head-to-head, debating whether prisoners should be granted the vote. Both teams will be challenged and critically analysed by a number of high profile judges including: Dame Sally Coates, chair of the Coates Review into Prison Education; Dr Tim O’Brien, psychologist, author, Inner Story; and Dr Ken McLaughlin, senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Claire Fox, founder and director of the Institute of Ideas behind the Debating Matters initiative, said:

“At a time when there can be so much hostility to open debate in the public sphere, it is heartening that there is an appetite to embrace debating in a challenging inner-city prison like HMP Birmingham.

“Debating Matters Beyond Bars challenges the notion that prisoners aren’t willing or able to research and argue about the ethical rights and wrongs of the big issues facing society, using reasoned, well-evidenced argument and we hope it will be an important addition to Birmingham’s educational work.

“This project is an exciting opportunity to demonstrate that debate can flourish in unexpected places and that no idea should be beyond critical discussion or contest and the Institute of Ideas team is thrilled that Birmingham’s prisoners and staff are up for this challenge.”

Pete Small, Prison Director at HMP Birmingham, said:

“The prisoners have all worked incredibly hard and I am extremely proud of all those who took part in this ground-breaking initiative and for all the staff at Birmingham who supported this. The atmosphere during the heats was fantastic, and it was heartening to see the prisoners so enthusiastic about the debates. Not just for themselves, and their teams, but helping others and asking difficult and interesting questions of their peers.

“This project has had a big impact on the group taking part and I hope we can see more initiatives like this across the prison estate.” 

About Debating Matters

Created in 2002, Debating Matters is a national sixth-form debating competition involving nearly 300 schools and 2000 students from around the UK, and has been staged in India, Israel and Germany. DM offers a fresh, accessible and engaging format for debating contemporary real-world issues, with an emphasis on substance, not just style of debating, and the importance of taking ideas seriously.

Debating Matters is a project of the Institute of Ideas (IoI). The IoI was founded in 2000 to provide a forum committed to open and robust public debate in which ideas can be interrogated, argued for and fought over. The IoI organises intelligent public debates, including an annual debating festival in London, the Battle of Ideas.

For further information about the competition, go to