I KNOW that I should be a little careful when talking about winners and losers.
I am involved in a local electoral contest in which there will be a single winner, though theoretically no fewer than five million people could have put themselves up for the post of London's mayor. As it happens, since I've now ruled myself out of contention for the top job, I am one of the few Londoners who can say without fear of contradiction that he won't be running for mayor.
That does not mean I don't believe in competing. There is now virtually no walk of life where success is not at least in part judged by how many others you beat. Schools can't hide from this fact.
The twin spurs to individual competition are the hope of winning and the fear of losing. Both can be positive forces. Last week I visited a school in inner London, less than a mile from where I was born, to present prizes.
Holloway School in North London, a previously "failing" institution, this year sprang triumphantly out of its OFSTED inspection with a clean bill of health.
Its head, John Hudson, and his staff glowed with pride and, more importantly, so did the parents and students. The evening was like a revivalist meeting, with every group of prize winners greeted as though they had just returned from conquering the Gauls. In each case, the cheers started by the hero's family and friends would be quickly joined by everyone else. It was a joyful, uninhibited occasion.
I've never believed the stories that lambast teachers for trying to eliminate individual competition. But there is understandable anxiety among some about the effect of rewarding young people for outdoing their peers. To have winners you must also have losers, and losing can be devastating. Some schools tend to square the circle by ensuring that every pupil receives an award of some kind.
Previously, in similar ceremonies I have handed over dozens of certificates for "effort" or "achievement". The problem is that you can see that the students themselves regard their awards as virtually worthless.
At Holloway, not everyone gets a prize. Most of the prizes are for being the best at sport, maths, geography or languages. This is a school at which being a winner is a cause not for embarrassment but celebration. I don't want to misrepresent this school as elitist. Hudson and his colleagues are not simply rewarding a few stars. They ensure that no-one wins more than one prize, and they spread the goodies around. They reward some students - though not many - for exceptional endeavour. Nonetheless, the fact is that while about one in ten marched up to the platform to take their certificates, the other nine in ten did not. Does this lead to mass loss of morale among the other students? Not as far as I could see.
Rather, the school seems determined to show that almost everyone can be a winner at something - and that sports or graphics or computer studies are no less significant than history or French. And the students liked it, they told me, though of course I mostly met those who took away prizes.
There is a lesson here. Self-esteem and pride are not quite the same thing.
Many value the former yet suspect the latter. I am, I must confess, partly the product of a fiercely competitive boys' school, and may anyway have been born with an exaggerated sense of expectation. But I also attended, and briefly taught in, inner-city schools. We all know that for many young people, the greatest disadvantage they face is the poverty of expectation - both their own and that of their teachers and parents. That disadvantage won't be eliminated simply by telling them that what they can already do is valuable.
They also have to be challenged to reach heights that at present lie beyond their grasp. The trick is to persuade students that even if they don't win this time, next time they might.