Academy of Ideas
Academy of Ideas
Taking Debating Beyond Bars

Taking Debating Beyond Bars

Guest podcast with Mo Lovatt, Debating Matters coordinator, and a former prisoner whose life was changed by the initiative

My friends at Debating Matters do an incredible job at encouraging people to really dig into important topics and get debate going about the future of society. They are best known for doing this in schools - but in recent years the has worked with prisoners as well.

As a lifelong advocate of the idea of rehabilitation - which I do NOT see as in conflict with the idea of punishment - I am hugely supportive of this initiative. Read on below for a guest post from (and podcast with) Debating Matters national coordinator Mo Lovatt, on the work they do in prisons and an interview with one former prisoner who’s life was transformed by the initiative.

This has been an exciting month for Debating Matters as we celebrated the competition’s twentieth birthday on 12 December at a special event in St George’s German Lutheran Church in London. We were delighted to celebrate with old friends and new as we launched our 20 for 20 programme – 20 events across our twentieth anniversary year – to celebrate the toughest debating competition in the world!

One of the 20 events that I am personally looking forward to is Debating Matters Beyond Bars. Initiated in 2015, Beyond Bars is a project which takes our schools-debating format inside prisons. Using our acclaimed substance-over-style format, teams of prisoners engage in debate with one another on a whole range of contemporary social, political and cultural topics. The programme aims to inspire them to think about issues beyond their current situation and to look forward to their life ahead – in other words, beyond bars!

This month, Geoff Kidder and I sat down with former Beyond Bars competitor Jon Floyd to discuss the impact the programme had on him when he took part in 2015 while he was serving his sentence. We were also joined by Heather Phillips, the chief executive of Beating Time, which runs, amongst other things, Inside Job – an employment programme she set up with Jon in 2020. 

Chatting to Jon, we discovered that taking part in Beyond Bars was the catalyst for starting that programme with Heather as well as a whole range of initiatives he’s been involved with since 2015. As he says in the podcast, Beyond Bars gave him a purposeful activity, helped him change direction and kickstarted his journey of rehabilitation.

One of the things I found so heartening in this interview with Jon is when he tells us that everyone who took part in Beyond Bars went on to do positive things with their lives.

When we organise competitions in schools and colleges, we always receive incredible feedback from students about how the project has improved their confidence and self-esteem. The skills they have learnt have helped them with university, apprenticeship or job interviews, as well as simply equipping them with more life skills. It was wonderful to hear from Jon first-hand how Beyond Bars had such a positive impact on him and his fellow competitors.

Beyond Bars offers prisoners an educational project that hopefully will help with skills and confidence when they leave prison and, while inside, encourages them to see that debate is a far better alternative to fists in any argument. The competition helps them find their voice by encouraging prisoners to research topics, see alternative perspectives, and focus on issues that matter to society, including the damage caused by crime. Taking everyone’s ideas seriously is fundamental to the work we do and should be at the heart of every liberal society.

I hope you enjoy the interview. Please share it with others, too.


Academy of Ideas
Academy of Ideas
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