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Where's the sport if everyone wins?

If children are perpetually protected from failure, how will they ever learn to appreciate success? Katrina Tweedie reports on the modern view of competition in schools

Children never lose any more, they never come bottom of the class and they are never left without some sort of prize. In the spirit of egalitarianism, the element of competition has all but been removed from their school lives.

At primary school sports days now it seems every child gets a "winner" sticker and in class they only sit tests they are guaranteed to pass. On the playing field, under-12 football scores can revert to zero at half-time if one side is getting trounced, and schools are encouraged to remove trophies.

Commendable though it may be to protect children from demoralising failure or the humiliation of a crushing defeat, by convincing every child they are a winner, are schools failing to stretch children academically or at sports?

Like a fixed game of pass-the-parcel in which everyone gets a chance to rip off the paper, some people fear schools are becoming too politically correct by ensuring that nobody loses. Critics predict a generation of children unable to deal with the harsh reality of life that sometimes you fail.

The assessment for learning programme being implemented in every Scottish school emphasises the importance of formative assessment. The underlying principle is that children perform better if they compete against themselves and are not pitted against each other, either in class or on the sports field.

Yet it is misleading to children to make them think they will never fail and dishonest to parents who don't understand how their child is doing, says Jennifer Stewart, who sits on the Scottish Executive's Assessment for Learning action group.

Mrs Stewart, a mother-of-three from Aberdeen, says parents are being duped by vague reports into believing their child is succeeding. The terms "must try harder" or "lazy" have been banned in some schools and replaced by "lacks motivation" or "switched off".

"On report cards, or annual progress plans as they are going to be called, teachers don't like to use a negative image of the children," she says.

"Personally I think parents can take it on the chin or at least they should be able to.

"You need to know where your child is placed and if they are not doing well it should be said so in plain English.

"Parents have no comprehension of the different levels in national testing and where their child stands. It's all very well saying your child has reached level A, B or C, but parents want to know what the teacher actually thinks. They want the whole picture.

"The idea that everyone wins, everyone is doing well, is terribly nice but kids have got to be prepared for failure.

"Parents can boost their children's confidence without them winning at school all the time."

Kay Hall, president of the Association of Head Teachers in Scotland and the headteacher at West Kilbride Primary in North Ayrshire, emphasises that competition should not be a bad thing. She says formal sports days have disappeared because the level of expertise needed to teach traditional sports is no longer available in schools.

"Part of the enjoyment of winning is learning how to lose. Boys learn particularly well if you introduce an element of competition into things," she says.

"But if you just focused on winning, you could get very demoralised. One would hope there are enough ways of succeeding now that every child will have the opportunity to succeed at their own level."

Teachers, she says, are careful not to put a child into a failure situation if they can avoid it.

"Everyone knows where you are in your class," adds Mrs Hall. "It doesn't take long to suss out who's the brightest and who's having problems.

"The rule of thumb now is that you don't test someone unless you know they are going to pass.

"Children are going to fail at certain things in life, regardless of what happens at school, but primaries are pretty good now at making sure children do not fail all the time.

"We want them to experience the pleasure of succeeding - it is more likely to motivate them than anything else."

Educators now talk about a child's "own journey" to "positive learning" and traditional sports days are described as "celebration days". This politically correct terminology does not eliminate the element of competition altogether.

"Parents would never let competition disappear," says Judith Gillespie, of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. "You absolutely cannot remove an element of competition out of how well people are doing any more than one can remove competitiveness out of parents with newborn babies over who sits up, walks and talks first.

"The fact that everything gets hidden behind different groups in classes now doesn't alter the fact that everyone knows which is the top group.

"Within the school system there is a feeling that you shouldn't differentiate in this way, but it still happens in a covert language.

"Parents would like it to be more overt because they want to know where their child is placed in the class."

One primary teacher in Aberdeen, who wishes to remain anonymous, describes how parents had begged to know which group their child was in. She says: "I tell parents that I have three main ability groups within my class. I will never say 'your child is struggling' or 'eighth in class' or 'bottom of class', but I will say 'your child is working towards the middle of my second group' or 'within the top group they lead the way', or 'within the third group they struggle'. You have to find a way of saying it without being blunt.

"Nowadays we are so positive that we give parents of even the poorer children a false idea of where they are in the class."

No council would admit to banning competition in schools but the emphasis has changed, admits Ewan Aitken, the education spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

"Competition has a place in the whole education experience, but it needs to have the right place," he says. "We wouldn't use competition as a strategy across the board because teaching kids they are failures is no good to anyone.

"Failure happens in life, which is why on the sports field or in music or art competitions I'm all for it. But when it comes down to subjects like maths, if that is gauged in terms of success or failure then you are struggling.

"The new philosophy of teaching is about formative assessment, setting goals a child can actually achieve, even though those goals will be different for every child."

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