Competitiveness just comes naturally

25th June 2004 at 01:00
Businessmen like to tell schools what to do. Digby Jones, the head of the CBI, has just told an MPs' committee that teachers should be teaching children to win. Schools should instil a spirit of competitiveness into their pupils, he suggested, and added the seasonal complaint that too many have abandoned traditional sports days for an Alice in Wonderland culture in which all must have prizes.

Mr Jones' right to give his view is undisputed: his members employ education's end products. But can he be serious? Employers are constantly telling us that they want employees who can co-operate, negotiate and work in teams just as much as people with four grade As at A-level. Many spend thousands of pounds every year sending their workforce on courses in which they orienteer, rock-climb and reveal all to each other in pursuit of better teamwork. They seem much less worried about getting people to compete.

With good reason. As any reception class teacher will tell Mr Jones, competition comes naturally. It is not an accident that the new foundation profile for five-year-olds includes among its goals "interacting and negotiating with others" and working in a group without so much as a hint of the need for instruction in winning and losing. Research into four and five-year-olds' behaviour, shows that they are already competing enthusiastically, particularly the boys.

The result, as employers have discovered, can be bad for business. A study of single-sex groups of infants tackling language tasks found that girls did better because they co-operated more. When the boys were asked to collaborate with each other, their performance improved. Older children may not compete to come top in maths but the contests over designer trainers, football teams and swear words per minute are real enough.

Mr Jones' notion that a generation of teachers has led pupils to believe that there is no such thing as failure by handing out chocolate bars and smiley faces to everyone at sports day is mistaken. Most secondary schools still hold traditional sports days with old-fashioned prizes even though students who have difficulty making it from the long-jump board into the pit may no longer take part. Many also offer a wider range of fun and games - how many bean bags can you pick up in a minute.

Just because teachers no longer rank their pupils from one to 30 in every academic subject each week doesn't mean teenagers no longer feel like losers. Ask the 30,000 pupils who leave school without qualifications each year. Mr Jones thinks that if teachers identified people more clearly as losers they would have a better chance of success. Teachers know that labelling someone a loser is the quickest way to make sure they become one.

Some employers agree. They have joined government schemes to send mentors into schools who talk to disaffected pupils and persuade them that they are winners.

The changes in education during the past half century, which Mr Jones caricatures, recognise this. We have abandoned a system in which the majority of young people were excluded from the race for the top prize (O-level) in favour of one which aims to persuade increasing numbers of 16-year-olds to get qualifications and stay in education. Teachers help pupils to compete against themselves even if they are likely to finish at the back of the race.

Competition is fine. But schools don't need to teach it. Like businesses, they should concentrate on co-operation, kindness and compromise which are much harder lessons to learn.

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