Competition has always been something in schools and also in life.  From a young age children are exposed to the idea that it’s good and even healthy to have a little competition in their daily lives.  Schools encourage competition through sports, contests at schools, and pitting kids against each other to see who will get the best exam results or the most stars at the end of the term.  Competitiveness is something that is always encouraged by governments and many people as being good for self-esteem and an important thing to get used to as competition exists in the workplace.  But is it really such a good idea to have competition at schools and what happens if some kids never get to the top of the class?

How competition starts in schools

I grew up in the UK state education system.  I went to an average primary school and an average secondary school, the latter which was deemed ‘outstanding’ by an ofstead report.  Competition was something that we knew about and did have in primary school, with teams of pupils competing in sports day and other activities, but it wasn’t really taken seriously until secondary school, where competition wasn’t just vital, it was necessary to succeed.  My school focused heavily on competitivness from the first day, with all students able to earn what was known as ‘commendations’ for doing extra outstanding things during the year.  These ‘commendation’ slips were pieces of paper we earned, like a certificate, for doing things like getting outstanding results in a classroom test, helping tidy cupbords, taking part in extra curricular activities and generally doing very well in school on the whole.  Earning these commendations felt good, but they weren’t given that much importance by the teachers.  The teachers at my school gave them out to lots of students, too readily in many cases and by the end of the year some people had 200, maybe even closer to 300 slips of paper with many of them being for silly tasks like putting all the text books left on the tables at the end of class back in a cupboard.  This should have made people ecstatic, happy to be getting so much encouragement from the teachers, but getting these commendations didn’t matter, it was how many that was key.

My teachers made it very clear that the amount of commendation slips we got mattered, not that we got them at all, or for a specific task.  Because at the end of the year the top three pupils with the most slips would earn prizes.  This led to everyone trying to get as many slips as possible, some even cheekily requesting that teachers hand them out for things we were asked to do everyday like tucking the chairs under the tables after class, and everyone went crazy trying to earn as many as possible in my first year of school there (year 7).  At the end of the year, three students were ecstatic, each winning prizes (which back then were jumbo chocolate boxes and similar stufff like that!), the rest of us who had still earned well over 100 slips were left feeling disappointed.  We associated hundreds of commendations, hundreds of pats on the back for good work, as ‘bad’ because the emphasis wasn’t on getting a commendation and being proud of it.  The emphasis was on getting more than someone else.

Healthy competition in sports

Competition is something that’s ingrained into school sports and encouraged by PE teachers across the world.  In the UK competitive sports are written into the national curiculum, they are encouraged as a valuable part of physical education on the whole.  Getting kids more active is of course important and PE classes are often discussed as an important part of stopping and reversing the rising obesity that many kids in the UK are now facing.  Politicians and celebrities always encourage healthly competitive sports in schools and so many of us have played our share of things like basketball, hockey, netball, tennis and even rounders (a staple at my secondary school-similar to baseball but without all the outfits and extra ceremony!) but if heathly competition is so important in school sports, why do so many people (especially those who suffered weight problems or self-esteem issues) leave education hating PE, like I did?

Rather than getting kids feeling great about being active, encouraging them to have fun, run and play among themselves, the secondary school system I went to encouraged everyone to be in competition with everyone else.  Activities that got us exercising where there was no competition, things like dancing and aerobics were only done on rainy days when the sports field wasn’t available.  At all other times sports of various kinds were encoruraged and it was important to be on the winning team.  At my school in particular (maybe because it was an all girls school) there was a ridiculous love of playing netball every year, a sport which I just hated as I was terrible at it.  Everyone was divided into teams and I always chose goal-keeper or goal-defence as it meant I didn’t have to run around as much as other people on the court.  But I was in class with girls who didn’t like me and bullied me and so when I missed the ball or didn’t throw it to the right person, everyone jeered and yelled at me.  This was done in front of teachers who also tutted at my performance and whenever the team lost the game, I was blamed with many of the girls continuing to go on about it well afer the class was over.  Single sports games like tennis, although played very occassionally at my school, were rarely encouraged which made it worse as tennis or racket sports in general (badmington included) were something I was far better at.

The PE teachers encouraged us to compete in teams and the losing team wasn’t praised for trying their best.  Instead the goal was on winning and eveyone felt bad if they didn’t.  No matter what sport was played, the emphasis was on winning and there was never encouragement for just taking part and getting fit or enjoying yourself.  Instead the emphasis was on winning and those who didn’t often turned on their weakest link in the team.

A different kind of competition is needed

What schools and anyone who encourages competition doesn’t realise is that for every pupil that thrives on competition, there is at least one other, and usually many more, that don’t.  For every child that’s praised for doing well, there’s another that isn’t.  For every child and teenager who wins at a sport or a school test or some other form of competition, there’s a whole classroom’s worth that do not.  And if some children are constantly on the losing end of competition, then it becomes an unhealthy activity that could damage their mental health and long term view on themselves.

School competition can be fun, but only if the students that don’t win are still made to feel valued for their contribution.  If children feel their taking part was still a wonderful thing, even if they didn’t win, then competition could still exist in schools in a positive way.  It wouldn’t carry the same damaging effects long-term.  But the school education system doesn’t concentrate on valuing the individual, Instead being the winner is what counts.  Despite government guidelines stating that competitiveness in things like sports encourages working together and understanding each other, the reality is that it doesn’t, at least not in my experience and that of many others I’ve heard.  Those who win all the time may gain an understanding and learn to work together, but it isn’t how those who lose feel.  The very reason I thrived better at primary school than secondary, was the distinct lack of heavy competitiveness.  My primary school had competitions, but everyone was made to feel valued, and at the end we didn’t really care who had won (though we all tried our best) what mattered was the fun we had during sports day and other activities.  Having said that though there did always seem to be a group of students whose parents were on the PTA (Parents and Teachers Association) who always were praised more than the rest of us, however the rest of us stil had fun and it was still the taking part that mattered.  And we tried new sports like Lacross and Netball with enthusiasm (yes I liked netball and even rounders back in primary school before growing to hate them in secondary).  The heavy competition in secondary school ruined my self-esteem and made me begin to hate not only myself, but also the sports and activities I’d previously loved, and it was all because I could never be the winner at school, I wasn’t even considered ‘good enough’, and so I always felt the loser, the weak link in the team, the failure.

Perhaps a more healthy form of competition in schools would be to get kids to compete with themselves.  Set their own goals and get each child to try and beat their previous scores, or ability in certain activities.  Self competition can be fun, especially as there’s less emphasis on being the best in class, and better than others, and more emphasis on just doing your best as an individual.  Trying to outdo everyone in class leads to division, it can also lead those who almost always top the class to feel severe shock, pain and anxiety if they one day don’t win, or become adults who see themselves as better than others (a horrible arrogance which nobody likes).  But if they are only competing with their previous score then there is less pressure on those around them and everyone can just be proud of their own achievments, whatever their ability.

An alternate idea that I don’t like but could see working better than the system I had is also to use the ability group system (which pools kids of similar abilities together), a system I am not a fan of by the way, with PE too.  While the whole class of less able students might be mocked or jeered by the fitter students, at least the less able students won’t feel the pressure of competing against the fittest kids in school!

Is competitiveness necessary?

This is a difficult question to answer for many as so many people including politicians will say yes.  They say yes because it is how so many workplaces function and so it’s important to get kids used to this way of living as it’s preparing them for the future.  But I would argue that the very reason we have so many people leaving school with low self-esteem and a lack of drive is because of all this competition.  Maybe we shouldn’t be fitting children into the way the world works and instead change the way our workplaces function to value the individuals working there (a big task but not impossible if people actually tried).  And we should stop trying to make our kids understand how our adult world works, because it’s the adult world and they aren’t there yet, so why push competition on them when there is time to learn about it when they are older.

We should be encouraging children to be individuals, and to praise them at whatever ability they have.  All children have the ability to shine, in very different areas from each other, but if we make them compete with each other over goals that are set by teachers and the government, then only a select few will every reach the top, and the rest will feel inadequate throughout their schooling and well into adulthood.

Do you think competition is a good idea in schools?  What about competition in general?  Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂