Should schools encourage competition between students? 

Friday July 19th, 2019

Welcome to our June issue.  Many pupils will be facing a busy schedule of exams and sports events in this final term of the academic year.  But should competitiveness always be encouraged in schools?  We’ll consider this controversial topic and look ahead to the post-exam period for students leaving school.

Should schools encourage competition between students?

Encouraging children to be competitive in a school environment can be controversial.  Those not in favour might quote the famous phrase attributed to former US President Theodore Roosevelt: ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’.  He captures perfectly the enduring sentiment that it’s important not to measure your sense of self-worth solely by comparing yourself to others.  Because competition, or competitiveness, is ultimately all about comparison.  Critics of a competitive approach in schools are concerned that competition compels children to measure their own successes against those of others, instead of setting their own standards of success and aspiring to meet or even exceed them.

It’s the taking part that counts…

With exactly this sentiment in mind, a few years ago in the UK there was a move away from competition and achievement-based rewards at school, especially at primary level, to ensure children didn’t feel they had failed.  For example, there were no ‘winners’ at sports day; instead every participant received an identical medal for taking part.  Of course it’s crucially important for schools to foster a non-judgemental atmosphere in which every child is treated equally, but many parents felt that approach to sports day was a step too far.  Equality isn’t necessarily about making everything exactly the same for everyone – it’s about ensuring everyone has equal access to opportunities that will enable them to fulfil their own potential.  In that respect, a good education is about treating each pupil as an individual.  The best UK independent schools have perfected that approach and they have the resources to implement it successfully.  And within those parameters they understand that a healthy attitude towards competition can help pupils learn valuable life skills and lessons.

Dealing well with competition is crucial

Advocates of a competitive environment in education argue that competition teaches crucial life skills.  Throughout our lives we all find ourselves in situations where we have to compete, most often in education- or career-related scenarios.  For example, entrance examinations for higher education establishments; job applications, interviews and promotions; high-powered negotiations in diplomatic or law-based careers.  To succeed and achieve in these cases – we have to be prepared to compete.  Which means we have to be ready to win or lose.  A good education with the ’right’ level of competitiveness should prepare us for that.  A healthy, balanced approach to competition can teach us to be determined and strong-minded in our pursuit of excellence.  Even under pressure and against the odds, we have the self-confidence and the willpower to aspire to win.  But if we don’t win, we have the resources and the capacity to rally, regardless of the outcome.  Self-esteem is not dented by ‘failure’ because it’s not perceived as such; instead it’s a chance to learn, grow and change if necessary.  The best UK schools empower their students to achieve this mindset through a healthy, balanced approach to competition within a supportive environment.

And that’s the key: competition becomes an element of the curriculum – not a constant state.  Children learn best when they feel safe and secure; a continuous competitive atmosphere in the classroom is not conducive to that. But an element of competition can foster great team spirit, self-confidence and self-belief.  The tried and tested system of separating students into ‘houses’ highlights just how successful some competitive team spirit can be at motivating people to perform to the best of their ability.  Just look at Harry Potter and his fellow Gryffindor graduates!

Recognising and rewarding individual success

So being part of a team can help young people strive to be successful.  But the best UK schools will always return to the pupil as an individual to help them get the very best results – not just academically but also in terms of being confident, well-balanced youngsters when they leave school.  One of the ways in which schools recognise individuality is through rewards or awards.  Each school will tend to have its own scheme, but some of the most successful are those that draw out the specific achievements of each student regardless of their ‘official’ level of attainment within any particular system of ranking.  These rewards can be as simple as a certificate, presented in front of peers, detailing the pupil’s achievement.  When I’ve had the honour of attending presentations like this in some of the schools I work with, it’s a delight to see the pride and pleasure on the children’s faces when their efforts are recognised publicly.  This simple style of positive reinforcement works wonders and in a way it’s the bedrock for a healthy approach to competition.  It helps each child establish that all-important sense of self-worth and personal achievement that makes competition productive rather than destructive.  Some people will always be naturally more competitive than others, but if it’s done well then competition in schools can help children excel – regardless of whether they win or lose.

Speech Day

A British institution in its own right, Speech Day at UK independent schools is the perfect opportunity to reward and inspire pupils in the presence of their peers and parents.  Designed to recognise achievements and promote aspirations, Speech Day features prize-giving for current students and school-leavers alongside speakers from previous school years.  These alumni, who are excelling in their chosen career, will give inspiring presentations about their work.  The idea is that students approach the end of term feeling uplifted and motivated.  A good speech day provides food for thought over the long summer break and should inspire parents and pupils alike to look to the future with enthusiasm and resolve.  It’s a good example of how rewards can be the catalyst for success if they’re linked to the principles of hard work and determination over time.

Post-exam education

GCSE exams are over for most pupils now, with end of year exams in the middle of June and A-level exams finishing before the end of the month.  Pupils (and parents!) will breathe a collective sigh of relief.  But there are plenty of wider educational opportunities on offer after the exams, with schools arranging trips to iconic British institutions such as the Houses of Parliament, Amnesty International and the Royal Horticultural Centre amongst others.  Children often tell parents there’s nothing going on at school once the exams end, so many families decide to arrange for them to leave school before the official end of term.  We always advise our clients against this because pupils can learn so much from these trips and other team-building and enrichment activities that schools organise in late June and early July.  From future career ideas and new areas of study – to a better awareness of the world around them in terms of history, politics and horticulture – these final weeks of term can have a hugely positive influence on children’s wider education.

Gap year ideas

For students sitting their A Levels this summer, a gap year might seem like a very attractive proposition.  It represents a real opportunity to take a break from ‘official’ education and experience the world whilst gaining valuable life skills.  Many teens travel during their gap year, volunteering or working in places that capture their imagination.  In this way, a gap year can really help to formulate a career path, or certainly a degree choice, for those as yet unsure.  Employers and universities alike will look favourably on gap years provided you can prove your time was well spent!  You can read more about the pros and cons of gap years in our March 2019 blog.

One method of exploring that has been transporting teenagers around the world cost-effectively for decades is interrailing. urges you ‘travel off the beaten track‘ and explore ‘Europe’s hidden gems’ by train.

The company offers discounts for young travellers (under 11s travel free of charge and anyone under 27 gets a 23% discount).  There’s also a European Union scheme – ‘DiscoverEU’ – offering free interrail passes for EU citizens on their 18th birthday.  The scheme has closed for applications this summer, but will re-open this autumn so it’s worth bearing in mind if you’re planning ahead for 2020.  Just search for ‘free interrail passes for 18 year olds’ in your web browser.

If you’d like to find out more about any of the issues or ideas covered here, please get in touch.