Is winning the be all and end all? Or should schools temper ambitions to be the best? One education expert analyses the pros and cons of competition in schools

Behind many front doors, there will be a familiar early summer scene playing out. Revision plans, books, notes, all of which will be scattered across the floor of teenage bedrooms; mothers manage a veneer of calm under which lies a knot of tension that work is actually being completed. Whether we like it or not, this is the time of year when almost every child over 11 will be sitting some type of exam, and there is no doubt that this time of year crystallises the essence of competition in our schools and our lives.

Over the years, so much has been debated and discussed on the subject of competition in schools. Governments have come and gone, and policy has changed and changed again. Primary schools have looked to emphasise taking part rather than winning – in sport, in academics and in school life.

What do pupils themselves think? Last year a survey was conducted by Marylebone Cricket Club and Chance to Shine charity in which it was discovered that, amongst the eight to 16-year-olds, almost two thirds claimed that they would be ‘relieved, not bothered or happier’ if winning or losing were not a factor. However, we all know many boys and girls who are eager to win and show various degrees of competitive spirit either against others or themselves.


Schools place a lot of emphasis on sporting success, but does this help pupils?

Even if we were to, somehow, be able to take the competitive element out of the classroom or off our playing fields, it would still be embedded in our daily lives as children and as adults. In some way or another, competition is in-built into the human psyche. Many would argue that a healthy level-headed approach to competition when we are young will enable us all to cope and embrace the adult world. Sir Digby Jones sums it up by speaking of our present national climate creating a generation that is ill prepared for a world that requires risk taking. He suggests that ‘competition teaches critical thinking, decision-making and problem solving’.

For those who are able to claim societies glittering prizes, it is easier of course. However, surely the key is to acknowledge and embrace the fact that we are all different, and come with different strengths and weaknesses, and not to try to make each child the same as the next. Lyn Kendall of British Mensa talks of the importance of competition within a supportive environment in which the child can learn to accept failure, but without losing self-esteem. Equally, those who are born with competitive talent and win often need to know how to fail, and lose with grace and respect for others.

So surely this is the key. There are schools where many pupils are performing at the very highest level in all areas of school life, yet there are others who will never quite reach these levels themselves. Despite this, they learn to embrace each other’s success, are not arrogant and leave the school feeling that they can walk confidently into the world, wherever it may take them.


Wimbledon High School host a ‘learn to fail’ week

Clearly this is easier to write than it is to achieve, but we should strive towards school life and life beyond it where each individual is respected for their strengths and weaknesses – where self-esteem is intact and yet failure has been experienced.

 Written by Sue Laidlaw, Senior Partner at Laidlaw Education. For more information, call 020 8487 9517 or visit

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