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Competitive parents can’t change their stripes

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Trying not to be a “tiger mum” is exhausting, especially if, deep down, you most definitely are one.

I have to work hard to resist signing up my oldest child for intensive bassoon lessons (it is a very noble instrument…).

And it takes a gargantuan effort not to tell the middle one that he should have thrown a bit harder in the interschool welly-wanging contest.

Worst of all is having to tell my children that “it doesn’t matter who wins” and that they should “focus only on what they are doing, not on everybody else”. Because, let’s face it, I am just as competitive as they are.

I’ll confess, I always take a peek in the other pupils’ work books at parents’ evening, just to see how my oldest is performing in relation to his fellow classmates.

I am reassured by their childish scrawl alongside my boy’s elegant efforts (you have to believe me, his writing really is exceptional for a 7-year-old).

At sports day, I have an alarming burning desire for them to win, even if it’s merely the egg and spoon race.

Perhaps I am a freak, but my hunch is that this is all pretty natural Darwinian behaviour. Our reptilian brains all want our children to survive and win. We’d happily scratch out the eyes of our most dear friend if they threatened the lives of our offspring.

All this is why it is clear to me that creating school “league tables” is a most unwise move.

There are those who argue that it is a useful exercise that gives parents the tools to choose a school, based on fact, not local rumour. If value-added measures and contextual data are included too, we can all judge how a school is really doing, taking its intake into account.

This may well be true, but the problem is this: as they have done in England, league tables quickly start to become all that anyone cares about. Human nature, unfortunately, prompts us to back a “winner’. Holding schools up to the light in this way, as if they were football teams, or ripening cucumbers, brings out the base instincts.

'Viciously competitive'

Instead of a calm, organised and collaborative approach to the education of the masses (as we still have to some extent in Scotland), we end up with a viciously competitive approach driven by fear and pride.

As a result, schools are put under more and more pressure to perform, teachers bear the brunt and pupils lose out as they are forced to dance to the tune of competition.

Fitting square pegs in round holes is bound to lead to a rise in poor pupil behaviour and mental health problems.

Alarming figures highlighted in this week’s edition of TESS show that the number of pupils leaving school without the most essential skills in literacy is growing: who could argue that it is not useful to have this data?

Despite this, data is also part of the problem. In England, we hear educators complaining that they are becoming slaves to it. Rather than using data to serve children’s interests, some argue that it has become an end in itself.

The National Improvement Framework aims to gather more data on schools – with the laudable aim of raising standards. The Scottish government is adamant that it does not want the extra information to be used to play schools off against each other or to be used to form league tables.

But – as in England – it may not necessarily have a say in the matter. After all, curiosity and competition – both fundamental aspects of human nature – will almost certainly make sure that it is.

This is an article from the 1 April edition of TESSThis week's TESS magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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