I don't like competitions. Never have. At least, not since I was cruelly robbed of first place in the contest to decorate our French exercise books at the beginning of secondary school. The hours spent traipsing around travel agents for brochures to nick; the deliberation over placement of the Eiffel Tower and onions. For what? All Gloy glue and no glory. After this defeat at the age of 11, I decided that my French teacher, French lessons and all of France were rubbish. With hindsight, I may have overreacted... maybe.
In the past few years working in FE, I have heard occasional chatter about skills competitions. There is even a WorldSkills event held every year, where children from around the world compete in disciplines as diverse as bricklaying and cake decorating. A vocational training Olympics, if you will.
Not having the interest to poke around further, and disliking the idea of competition, I filed such things in my head as naff but harmless distractions: It's a Knockout for brickies and beauty therapists. Then I had a conversation with someone who described them in such a way that they seemed not just worthwhile but necessary.
Martin Shelton started his career as an apprentice hairdresser before progressing to owning his own salons and employing numerous apprentices himself. After 11 years as a successful businessman he began teaching, moving up the ranks to his current position of assistant principal at North Warwickshire and Hinckley College (NWHC).
The competition strategy at NWHC has been running for four years as a means to identify particularly talented students and coach them as part of a highly successful squad to enter UK skills competitions. Shelton explained to me that the culture of aspiration this generates is valuable to every learner, regardless of whether they are of a high enough standard for the national squad. "All students know that there is a competition club in their curriculum area, where they can practise their skills and have a chance to compete at all sorts of different levels," he said.
As well as the programme designed to lead to potential entry to formal competitions, everyday teaching and learning has a competitive element.
As Shelton was talking, I recalled the occasional end-of-term sessions that I had taught, running something that may have looked like an exam to the untrained eye but that, with the word "quiz" and a Twix attached, was received with unprecedented enthusiasm. As an experiment to discover whether this amounted to bribery, I had also taught the same session to another group with a paper hat known as "the crown" for a prize. It worked just as well and I regretted shelling out for chocolate.
This exercise clarified that the motivation is not the prize itself, rather the esteem that excelling offers.
I am a convert. The competition strategy, if adopted on a whole-college basis and executed with commitment and enthusiasm, seems to me a sensible concept. It generates excitement to learn and confidence to perform under pressure.
Having a complete change of mind in what I thought was a fixed opinion is a nice surprise and, if it leads to being better at my job, a welcome one.
Maybe France isn't so bad either.
Sarah Simons works in a large FE college in Mansfield.