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Debating team members hailed as 'excellent ambassadors' for Thurso High School


By Alan Hendry

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Ashleigh Coghill and Innes Morgan with their debating coach Alexis Wallace in the Scottish Parliament building.
Ashleigh Coghill and Innes Morgan with their debating coach Alexis Wallace in the Scottish Parliament building.

Three pupils from Thurso High who attended the final of a debating competition in the Scottish Parliament have been praised as "excellent ambassadors" for their school and for the Highlands.

They travelled to Edinburgh with their debating coach Alexis Wallace and watched the final of the Donald Dewar Memorial Debating Tournament, organised by the Law Society of Scotland, as well as taking part in the floor debate and having a tour of the building.

The Thurso debaters were also able to meet Maree Todd, the MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross.

The final was held in the parliament chamber and was won by another Highland school, Fortrose Academy, represented by Aimee Ross and Orla McMichael.

Mrs Wallace said: "Thurso High School has reached the semi-finals of the competition four times now, which is a great achievement, and our 'wild card' to the finals last year for Kyle Leavesley and Kieran Johns was a tremendous bonus.

"However, we had never tried to organise a trip to watch the final in parliament – last year’s finals were held online, and Kyle and Kieran came second.

Ashleigh Coghill and Innes Morgan (with Kyle Leavesley partly hidden) meeting local MSP Maree Todd.
Ashleigh Coghill and Innes Morgan (with Kyle Leavesley partly hidden) meeting local MSP Maree Todd.

"The semi-finalists are always invited to watch the finals and be involved in the floor debate, so this year, I was determined to try to be there, taking Ashleigh Coghill and Innes Morgan, our recent semi-finalists, along with Kyle. Unfortunately our fourth member, Hannah Dunnett, couldn’t join us.

"I felt that after the pandemic it was especially important for our pupils to actually meet others and talk and debate face-to-face rather than via a screen. Covid allowed us to explore online debating and it helped us to forge links with Fortrose Academy, but online debating just can’t compare with a real live debate."

Funding for the trip came from the Dounreay Communities Fund.

"We organised to meet the Fortrose team in Inverness and share their minibus to Edinburgh," Mrs Wallace said. "The pupils had only 'met' before in online debates, so it was a lovely opportunity to really meet and chat.

Innes and Ashleigh with Deputy First Minister John Swinney at the Scottish Parliament.
Innes and Ashleigh with Deputy First Minister John Swinney at the Scottish Parliament.

"We practised against each other online for the semi-finals and our pupils also practised for the final with them, which allowed us to think through the motion before the debate. It was fantastic to be in the parliament and we were very pleased that Maree Todd took the time to come and meet us and have some discussion on local issues such as potholes, nuclear power and hospital provision.

"We were able to talk to a range of people during the break, from coaches and pupils to the Presiding Officer and John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister.

"While the three Thurso pupils were in many ways relieved not to have to be up there debating they also felt that it would be an amazing experience and were all keen to make points during the two floor debates. The motion was 'This House regrets the emergence of cancel culture’ and the judges praised the high standard.

"Innes Morgan’s point was chosen as one of the two winning floor speeches and he was given a £50 book token and certificate. We were truly delighted when Fortrose won the competition. Both schools have helped to really gain Highland debaters a reputation.

"Because of the Dounreay funding we were able to stay the night and then have a tour of parliament and visit the Scottish National Portrait Gallery."

From left: Ashleigh Coghill, Innes Morgan, Emily Wallace, Antonia Webb, Hannah Dunnett and Kyle Leavesley after the Clarke Trophy competition.
From left: Ashleigh Coghill, Innes Morgan, Emily Wallace, Antonia Webb, Hannah Dunnett and Kyle Leavesley after the Clarke Trophy competition.

Mrs Wallace added: "I knew that our pupils would be excellent ambassadors for Thurso High School, and indeed the Highlands, and the trip was thoroughly enjoyed by all.

"Since returning, I have had lots of positive feedback about how articulate Kyle and Ashleigh are, and I hope that their debating has contributed to this. They are now head boy and girl."

Kyle and Ashleigh helped judge the in-school Clarke Trophy for the new S2/S3. It was won by Antonia Webb (S2), with Emily Wallace (S2) as runner-up.

Thurso High and Fortrose Academy are planning further friendly competitions.

Mrs Wallace said: "Both Karen Meikle of Fortrose Academy and I are most impressed with the standard our debaters have reached and, while we try our best to help them, the vast majority of the credit really is due to them.

"It has been a fantastic experience and Ashleigh and Kyle are keen to enter the competition next year. Who knows – maybe we will be back at Holyrood in 2023!"


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