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Spigot-fanciers net trophies

Ted Wragg finds taking part is more important than winning as Mark Whitehead meets the champions The Acme Spigot Company is proud to announce a new competition for schools. The competition is open to children aged from five to 12. Competitors should submit a sculpture made entirely out of spigots representing the concept 'Biodiversity in the 21st century'. The winning school will receive 100 free spigots a year until the year 2001, and the five finalists will each receive a voucher for 50 spigots.

Some people are compulsive entrants to competitions and others cannot stand them. Yet there are more and more competitions for schools nowadays. Those who enter often feel: never mind what a spigot is (it's a bung actually), get the entry form and let us see if we can win resources, prestige or something for our hard-up school. If the spigots are of no use whatsoever, then perhaps we can sell them to raise cash.

Another bonus comes if the competition fits in neatly with the children's programme of work (spigots across the curriculum, the history of the spigot, the use of the spigot in modern technology), because time spent on it will not then be wasted.

Having judged many of these school competitions, I have seen a wide variety of entries, ranging from the awesome to the awful. Submissions to the competition organised by the National Union of Teachers and the Football Association, based on the Euro 96 football finals which take place in England through much of June, seemed uniformly high to me.

Here was a good idea, which capitalised on the considerable publicity there is for any major sporting event on British soil. Schools had to submit projects based on some of the 16 countries with teams in the finals. This gave children the opportunity to find out more about well-established countries like Germany or Italy, and 'new' countries, such as Croatia. There was an excellent set of responses, with posters, videos, displays. Children clearly enjoyed taking part, it fitted in well with their curriculum, and they will get more out of the football finals having learned about the countries.

Not all competitions work as well. Some attract very few entrants, even when valuable prizes are on offer. This is sometimes because the organisers have not taken advice about the subject matter, the timing, or the amount of time and effort required. on other occasions it is lack of publicity. I have seen competitions where the only decent entry won, much to their surprise, as they expected dozens of participants and found there were five.

It is worth giving careful thought to any competition you enter, as time can easily be wasted otherwise. For me the most important criterion for entering is that, if children have enjoyed what they do and found it worthwhile, then there are no losers. That said, how can schools get the best out of the experience? The first tip is to read the requirements carefully. If a 15-minute video is required, then don't send in three hours of rambling, random-looking shots. The judges have to discount some entries simply because they did not send in what was asked for.

You should present the submission as attractively as possible. This means that any artwork or text should be the best that children of that age can produce. Drafting and redrafting a text, evaluating and presenting a finished product, are all part of the national curriculum in subjects like English, or design and technology, so getting children to aim high is time well spent. Even children's finest work may still look a bit rudimentary, but if it is the best they can do then that does not matter.

Another tip is to bear in mind that most winning entries have a touch of imagination about them. They stand out from the rest. Entries for some competitions can be pretty predictable, so any school that finds an interesting aspect, or an inventive solution, has a head start.

In one competition, in which children had to predict the future, most entrants described some kind of ecological disaster. This was not surprising, as children care deeply about their environment and are very much afraid that it might be ruined by the time they grow up. What stood out, however, were the entries that portrayed this in some particularly graphic way, the ones that saw some positive possibilities, and those that used grim humour.

Most important of all is the enthusiasm that can be generated. When children and teachers are enthusiastic, this often translates into vivid and lively submissions. That is what makes most competitions worthwhile.

A small primary school in a rural area won a major prize in a national competition organised by a Japanese firm in which schools had to do something Japanese. The children and teachers got the whole village to join in their kite flying and other activities. Imagination and enthusiasm shone through and they won a crate of Japanese goodies, which led to even more celebrations. But it would not have mattered if they had not won, as they had had so much fun.

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