Children, competition, and the classroom: why we must smash the ‘small pond’ ceiling

Posted on: 24 Jun 2015

Jane Grubb, Head of Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst says obsession with assessment, exam scores and relentless competition creates an unhealthy educational culture for young people…

In early June, headmaster of Windlesham House School, Richard Foster, told the Daily Telegraph that ‘hot housing’ damages children’s health and robs them of their childhood – just one recent example of a growing chorus of concern from educationalists over assessment regimes and their effects.

I am part of that chorus. In April, in an article for the Daily Telegraph, I argued that an obsession with assessment and exam scores, accompanied by relentless competition, is helping to create an unhealthy educational culture for young people – including the under-10s.

I cited as an example the current UK fascination for the methods of Shanghai maths teachers, despite evidence of unwelcome effects on young people, and a broad consensus amongst UK teachers participating in a sizeable recent study (Character Education in Schools, University of Birmingham) that the British assessment system hinders the development of the 'whole child'. Children need ‘free space’, it was argued, where students can ‘be themselves’ without having to think about exam scores.

Predictably or not, the article prompted a considerable amount of comment and discussion between readers. Some seemed broadly supportive of my position, and others less so. Whilst responses to my piece may have been diverse, what is beyond dispute is that the subject of children’s experience of pressure and stress as a consequence of competition hit a collective nerve. Thus encouraged, I decided that I needed to give the subject further thought.

One commentator on my article asked why children should not compete, be ambitious, and set store by good test results – unless, of course, I was advocating that our schools turn out cabbages. What interested me about this question was the assumption that ambition and competition are somehow synonymous.

It is my view that the development of ambition in young people is central to good education. However, I also believe that we are missing a trick by encouraging our charges to compete with each other. Even if we were to accept the point made by one commentator that the purpose of school is to prepare young people for a ‘totally unforgiving and relentless’ working life, I don’t see how this end can be served in the 'small pond' that is the classroom. We must aim higher, and look to the wider world for the stimulation of competition or, more importantly, to provide a bigger view of the level of achievement that is possible within a world arena.

All too often, in competition-driven schools, children can be ‘the best’ and sit back to bask in their little pond victory, enforced further by peer and adult praise and approval. By taking away the small competitive environment and focusing on personal target setting, resilience, challenge, initiative, collaborative learning and training, pupils achieve so much more and support each other in the process. Schools should be communities of stimulating and challenging learning with no parochial ceilings to hold pupils back.

We should not be reliant on purely extrinsic motivations, however. Much of what we do at Bedales Prep School is concerned with helping young people to find their passions, and to challenge them to learn.

I remember one of my own primary teachers helping me do just that, and through my love of drama, art and music showing me that there was more of what I valued to be found in other subjects too. This is not to say he was a soft touch: he was critical, obsessive and demanding – but in a good way. As teachers, we spend a lot of time developing such relationships, and I am firmly of the view that any fresh resource made available for schools to reduce class sizes would help to give our best teachers the time to do precisely this.

One rather brutal assessment of my proposal that we need an alternative to relentless peer competition was the suggestion that I should send my kids ‘out to pick flowers’, and that they would be cleaning Chinese houses before the decade is out. For the record, we do encourage our children to learn outside when appropriate, and it may even be the case that our subsequent discussions around any flowers they pick have a part to play in the excellent test scores our students receive for science, and then subsequently at GCSE and A level.

The point here, of course, is that education can take many forms, and it should not be assumed that methods that deviate from the traditional are some kind of abdication. Whilst variety, fun and encouragement from all quarters are important, the school has a culture of challenge, and a key part of our work lies in helping our children not to be flattened by setbacks.

Carol Dweck’s well-known work on ‘growth mindset’ raises many questions around the importance for performance, respectively, of attitude, genetic inheritance and social/environmental factors. This is not the place to go into this debate, save to say that Dweck’s work supports broadly the idea that those young people who believe that intelligence is not fixed but can be grown are better able to cope with pressure.

This is important, given the inevitable increase in failed attempts that comes with the territory of taking risks and tackling ever more demanding challenges. We work hard on developing such attitudes within a culture of high expectations, to the extent that we as teachers occasionally find ourselves apologising to pupils for work that is not providing enough challenge, and promptly replacing it with a sufficiently demanding alternative. Our children come to understand that work will be demanding, but that this doesn’t mean impossible, and that we don't spread praise around like confetti. Nor do we hand out cups and prizes – we don’t need to.

As much as this seems to upset some people, I will continue to work passionately to provide an educational environment that is fun, as well as being demanding, stimulating and rewarding. It is nice to think our young people might later have a reasonable expectation of the same in their working lives. Work need not, and must not, be the brutal experience that some commentators on my piece believe it to be; a ‘they had better get used to it’ attitude must not shape how we educate our young people.

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