Category Archives: Education

As a parent I’m always interested what’s going on in education. This blog is about putting some researched thoughts out there and sparking a bit of debate.

My mum’s boomerang – it’s all coming back to me now

Here’s what I found in the attic in response to the Leftovers blog

On 2nd June 1961 my mum, in her early 20’s, boarded the SS Canberra with 2,237 other passengers and set sail on its maiden voyage for Australia.   Able to afford only a one way ticket and not much caring for the sea, I can only imagine the combination of excitement and apprehension.    Anxiety that can’t have been eased by her father’s anger when he heard about her plans and his refusal to see her off.

She spent the next 6 years in Australia, working largely for the Daily News, experiencing plenty of what the country had to offer.  A mixture of letters, recordings and one pre-planned phone call a year (her family back home in England didn’t have a telephone) was all she had to communicate with her parents and 5 brothers and sisters – oh for a facebook, twitter or blog!

She no doubt had some incredible experiences – many more than she’d every admit to her children. When she did eventually return, she was only able to bring with her a few treasures.   Two items that stuck in my mind were a large bow and arrow set and a boomerang – both given to her by an aboriginal tribe whilst covering a story with her boss for the paper.

I first saw them when I was about 8 yrs old – an age when my parents could trust me to visit the attic with confidence I wouldn’t come crashing through the floor via a mis-placed foot.   I remember the brutal strength required to pull the bow and the lethality of the tribally feathered arrows.    But what fascinated me most, however,  was the boomerang, which had been delicately carved and painted with aboriginal scribe.   How on earth could this funny little bent stick possibly come back to you once it had been thrown.   Impossible I thought.  But the seed was planted and I knew one day I’d have to give it a try.

During a hot summer holiday day a few years later,  I was off school and kicking my heels for something interesting to do and mum asked me to get something from the attic.   So up I went and purely by chance came upon the bent stick.  A light bulb went on – today this stick was going to fly and I would be the pilot!

With the boomerang stuffed under my shirt I strode purposefully outside and into the garden.  The image you might have at this stage is a large open meadow with a few apple trees clumped in one corner and a crumpled looking hedgerow framing the view as far as the eye could see.  Perhaps a more accurate image might be a square grassed area, size capable of parking 2 cars with a brick garage at one side (good for football I might add), a huge beech tree (always interesting to climb) to its left, a lamp-post (great for kick-stone games with the other kids) opposite and 2 cars parked on the drive providing cover on the final side.

At that age, little did I know that a boomerang requires more space than a yo-yo, but rest assured it was a lesson I was shortly to realise.   My right arm drew back like a pitcher and with all the ferocity I could muster I sent it off into the distance.   Well I’m sure it would have gone into the distance had the garage wall not provided an inconvenient obstacle.

The boomerang splintered into 2.  I involuntarily jumped from side to side as if standing on hot coals whilst muttering “oh s**t, oh s**t” – inappropriate language for a 10yr old I might add.  For a second or two I was so gripped by terror, I couldn’t function.  My legs wouldn’t move, I couldn’t speak, blood drained from every limb. If candid camera had been present I’d have been carted off to an institution.

Eventually I strode up to the shattered stick and like all boys of that age pondered how to get myself out of the mess.  First thought – who could I blame?  Sadly a very short-lived thought.   If Mum & Dad discovered the crime – that I had ruined a prize and irreplaceable possession, my life was surely over. I imagined that in all probability the bow and arrow might also get a first use in many a year, only with me as a target.   If I couldn’t admit it, then there was only one other course of action.  I’d have to try to fix it and hope for it never to be discovered.

So to another product young boys are rarely supposed to touch – unless accompanied by a mature adult – the superglue.  The strongest glue the world had ever seen – strong enough to hold a grown man upside down from an aeroplane according to the advert, so strong enough to fix a boomerang surely – and I might just get away with it provided I didn’t glue my fingers together at the same time.      A quick dab of glue on the boomerang, sandwiched between 2 books to keep it pressed firmly together and it was job done.  Up to the attic to return it (and the accompanying books) and all was calm.

I was in the attic a few weeks ago and found the boomerang – still actually pressed between the very same books.  Not by design, but because the books had also stuck to the boomerang – they certainly weren’t lying about the strength of the superglue. Maybe my son will follow in his father’s footsteps by one day attempting to throw the books & boomerang to see whether they all come back – now that would be interesting.

You might think I’d got away with it for all these years.  Sadly not.  A couple of years after the incident my Dad was clearing out the attic when he came across the scene of the crime.  A roaring bellowing noise crashed down through the attic hatch as I was summoned – don’t know how he knew it was me, I mean it could have been my sister – but obviously parents just know.   Mum came scurrying along to intervene. I’m sure with the intention of protecting her son from the angry attic beast. I prepared myself for my William Tell moment as Mum was presented with the evidence.    Clearly upset that a precious gift from another age was destroyed, she turned to me and saw my distress – my remorse for what I’d done and my fear for what was about to be done.

She just smiled, patted me on the head and said “I’m not sure it ever really worked anyway. So never mind – it’s been sat up in the attic for over 20 years so I’m sure we won’t miss it.  But you should have told me rather than trying to hide it and just tell me next time you need to use to super-glue as I don’t want a visit to A&E”.

I learnt a lot about being a parent that day and what’s really important.  I hope when my children put me to the test, the boomerang and all it entailed come back to me.   My mum passed away a couple of years ago and I never really told her how sorry I was for breaking the boomerang or how grateful I was for what she taught me.  Thanks Mum.

A big tick or a red cross for the teacher’s strike?

The National Union of Teachers is planning a strike in England and Wales on 10 July because apparently the government is failing to make progress on a long-running dispute over pay, pensions and workload. Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT said “For teachers, performance-related pay, working until 68 for a full pension and heavy workload of 60 hours a week is unsustainable.”

In the UK there is a legal right to strike – and some would call it a human right to strike. It stems from the recognition of collective bargaining in the late 1940’s and is supposed to be act as a deterrent to prevent “bully boy” tactics by employers. Which all sounds very reasonable and logical. However what happened in the 1970’s showed that it could also be used by “bully boy” trade unions to get their own way as short-sighted union officials nearly bought this country to its knees.

In the mid 90’s I used to work for a company that had historically strong trade unions. One Saturday morning, I needed a trailer to be moved away from a loading bay to be parked in the yard. Just 1 trailer that would have taken 15 minutes to move. I asked the team of 4 shunt drivers whether anyone fancied the overtime only for my attention to be drawn to the union agreement. It stated that any weekend overtime needed to be offered to the entire shunt crew rather than any individual as it wasn’t fair to favour any one over the others and any employee turning up for weekend work would be paid a minimum of 8 hours at double time. So for 15 minutes work I would need to pay 4 people the equivalent of 16 hours pay each – in other words 15 minutes of work would cost the company 64 hours of pay. And by the way – no one other than the shunt drivers was allowed to carry out that work so we couldn’t bring anyone else in to do it either. My hands were tied and there was nothing I could do. I was so annoyed, I decided to have none of them in and leave the trailer where it was until the following week – it caused me a lot more work to re-jig the schedule but there was no way the union was going to blackmail me.

At the end of the day, the unions can hold massive power. A power that a company simply can’t compete with. That sort of power needs respect – by those who are against it but more importantly those who have it.

My example showed an agreement that was designed to “protect” the employee, but simply created a division between employees and management. An agreement that elevated workers rights far beyond what was sensible or appropriate. An agreement so inefficient that it could only lead to the demise of the company and instead of talking about overtime, we’d eventually be talking about redundancies – especially in a global economy. As with most things, the problem is people. In order to be an effective trade union you need to balance the long-term benefit of both the company and the employee. To recognise when the company is being too demanding, but to also recognise when the company needs to make changes to survive and prosper. To do that effectively, you need to have sat in the Management seat and had the experience of taking a company forward. Trade Unionists who have not been Managers are recipes for disaster.

Similarly, however management need to recognise the importance of their employees. Without the employees a company is nothing. How can a Manager who has never had experience working in the conditions experienced by some of the employees possibly understand their needs. Managers who have no experience of doing – on the streets, in the factory, in the yard – are a recipe for disaster.

So let’s move on to the teachers. To remove labour from our schools is significant. There is little more important than education and depriving children of something so fundamentally important is concerning. So surely it must be the last resort – well I mean surely it must be the last resort since the previous last resort strike in March.

But does the NUT have a legitimate cause? I know there are other issues at play but let’s look at the 3 points mentioned by Christine Blower – performance-related pay, working until 68 for a full pension and heavy workload of 60 hours a week.

  • Performance related pay: The idea to reward better performance sounds great but it all comes down to measurement, subjectivity and mitigating factors.  More often than not, employers measure the wrong things, often in a subjective way, without taking into account the circumstances.  So rather than be productive, they can actually de-motivate.  Teaching is about enabling each child to reach their potential and there are a whole range of factors at play.   It is pointless and hugely subjective to measure a teachers based on the results of the children. Is a teacher with pupils achieving A* grades performing better than one achieving B?   Is a teacher with a class where 99% achieve A*-B better than a teacher with 50% A*-B ?  No – we have no way of knowing because we don’t understand the influencing factors outside the control of the teacher.   Performance related pay can only be divisive for teachers.
  • Working until 68 for a full pension:  The truth of the matter is we’re living longer and there is already a massive public sector pension deficit.   No-one likes the idea of working longer for the same pension but you have to be living on Mars not to realise things can’t go on as they are.   Private sector pensions have been severely hit over the last few years with the removal of final salary schemes, greater employee contributions and an increase in pensionable age.   Many companies (massive household names) have huge pension deficits that they are trying to fund and many will go out of business as a result.   At the end of the day it’s basic  maths – what’s paid in vs what needs to be paid out – and if the payments out are greater than the payments in then we have a problem.  That’s exactly where we are and as a result, I have absolutely no sympathy for teachers on this issue. Teachers need to accept that everyone will face the same issue and given that their pension schemes are already far better than many they should be very grateful.
  • heavy workload for 60 hours a week:  A nominal school day is between say 9 and 4 so potentially it’s a 7 hour day times 5 days per week which equates to 35 hours per week.  So that figure of 60 hours would suggest every teacher is doing 25 hours extra per week or potentially 5 hours per night – which does sound rather a lot of marking, class preparation, extra curricular activities,  report writing etc.   Whilst many in the private sector are equally flogged, if teachers are really working 60 hours per week, then it is too much.  It’s too much because it would appear that our teachers, who’ve been trained to teach, are in fact spending almost as much time not teaching as they are teaching.  However to strike about this seems almost counter-intuitive.  The teachers will now have less days to cram in the same amount of work – assuming they’ll still follow the curriculum.   It would be better instead to concentrate on removing the non value adding tasks – and there are many in our schools – and making others more efficient.  I know the NUT and it’s members are probably up in arms throwing tantrums by the dozen because of the suggestion they are not 100% efficient – but none of us are and occasionally we can all do with re-pointing.

So there is only 1 point that is a justified grievance.  Performance related pay is a nonsense.  But is it really so serious that the only way out is a strike?   I think not!  The real motive behind this strike are not the issues of debate but a jostling for power and that sort of strike takes us back to the dark days of the 70’s and is an abuse of the right.  The NUT flexing it’s muscles against the unpopular Michael Gove who has the audacity to attempt to change a system that in all honesty doesn’t work as well as it needs to in the modern world.  He might not be right in some of what he’s trying to do, but the NUT are plain wrong.

Teaching is a difficult job and in our blame culture they are at the coal face when it comes to looking for excuses.   It’s not made any easier when the people supposed to represent them pursue a self interested agenda – and when you consider the hundreds of pounds the teachers pay for the privilege it’s almost laughable.

Perhaps children should go on strike to protest about teachers going on strike – then we’d really have something interesting on our hands.

How can state education steal the private marketplace ?

Why would any parent want to spend money on education when it is available free down the road? I mean would they spend £20 on a Big Mac when they could get one exactly the same for £2 down the road? I very much doubt it.  Whilst there are many people who suggest that state education is every bit as good as private, you have to conclude that the private parents believe there is a different product on offer to justify the cost.

Unfortunately in most cases those supporting state education fail to understand or grasp the significance of the major differences such as:   Education standards, aspirations, like-minds, facilities, links with other organisations such as Universities and networking.   The value of each differs between schools and the emphasis parents place on it but like it or not without them people wouldn’t pay for private education.

Education standards is usually where the argument centres and for many people it is the most important criteria. Does it mean better teachers? Not necessarily. I’m certain there are many equally capable, if not more capable teachers working in the state sector. Is it results ? Yes. For many private schools, if they are unable to demonstrate that their average results are better than the state competition then they will struggle to attract the best fee paying customers unless some of the other “differences” are more valued.  To maintain those higher standards, they either need to select the most able pupils in the first place or make sure that those who do come are pushed to the appropriate standards over the years.

This raises two interesting points. Firstly the idea of selection based on ability. This principle was actually led by the state school system and was called Grammar schools. Grammar schools were able to group together similarly able pupils, regardless of their social background in an attempt to provide an education more suited to their needs and create greater opportunity. Where I live there are still a few Grammar schools that are doing fantastically well and as a result, all the private schools are second choice – and we’re talking about some famous names in private schools. Parents will not pay if the free option is as good.

Secondly, how is it possible to raise academic standards to a higher level when the teachers are no better? This is an area that is consistently neglected when it comes to raising academic standards. Government and various education think tanks are constantly banging on about the need to measure and improve the teachers – if it’s not working let’s blame the teachers. That’s simply passing the buck because it isn’t populist to tackle the real issues. Where a private school has an advantage is that the parents have a vested interest in the outcome and that changes the behaviour of both teachers and pupils – as my former boss put it “they have skin in the game”. It gives the teachers the tools needed for control and it gives the pupils two taskmasters. If your parents are paying for your education you will put in some effort, but if you’re results don’t live up to expectations you will be told to try harder not just by the teacher, but by the parents as well. If your parents are paying for your education and they hear you’re misbehaving or not paying attention in class, you will hear about it under “I’ve not been working hard all these years to try to give you the best start in life for you to mess about with your idiot friends. Knuckle down or we’ll look at the local state school” – and the idea of losing your friends and starting again carries some weight.

A Department of Education report in 2010 confirmed that “parental engagement has a large and positive impact on children’s learning” and this followed a report by Professor Charles Deforges, OBE in 2003 that stated “In the primary age range the impact caused by different levels of parental involvement is much bigger than differences associated with variations in the quality of schools. The scale of the impact is evident across all social classes and all ethnic groups.”

Following closely on the heels of educational standards are like-minds and aspirations. If the primary motive for the parents sending their children to private school is to achieve a certain standard then already you have people with similar aspirations. Parents who’ve been through the same process, struggled with the same decisions and who value education similarly.

Private schools come with parental engagement of a sort already established. State schools simply don’t have that. It doesn’t mean that a child can’t do well in a state school, however the probability is lower. You only need a few disruptive children to hold back a class, but if the parents aren’t sufficiently motivated to play their part in resolving the problem then the teacher loses the tools needed to do the job. The more committed pupils can still achieve their potential, hopefully with the support of their parents to do that, but in the worst case a domino effect ensues and disruption spreads.

Facilities are often raised as being a key differentiator. The wealth of the private school enabling better sporting facilities, more IT equipment, better field trips. I’m quite sure that’s true when comparing many private schools with state. However, it seems to be a point raised more by the pro-state backers, that the private school parent doesn’t place much emphasis on it. I’ve heard plenty of parents comment on how good the facilities are at a school, but never heard of any allowing it to heavily influence their decisions.

And on to the final differentiator and possibly the most misunderstood. Networking and links to other organisations. “The old school tie” is often derided in the world of business and politics. Just by attending a certain school, opportunities open up for you. Some private schools, the elite famous private schools, are less about education and more about networking. Making sure you become friends with people or families of influence so that as you climb the ladder, it’s less about what you know and more about who. Despite the denials to the contrary – I mean everyone wants to believe they are there on merit rather than favours – it is absolutely 100% true.

However, before people march to the Capitol in protest, it is worth considering that the behaviour is not unusual. It would not be unusual for someone raised through the state system to help their friends’ careers, given the chance. Networking and nepotism exists at all levels of society. The key difference is the fact that the networking at the more elite private schools tends to play out at the more influential end of society where the financial rewards are greatest. In that context money buys influence which buys opportunity. But is it the principle of nepotism or jealousy of the rewards at the top that cause us most difficulty? I doubt we’d get too worked up if Lord Sainsbury was giving his old mate Earl Smyth a position on the checkout at the local store, but if he becomes the MD, we might be a little more upset. So I suggest it’s the latter.

Where does all that leave us. Money provides choice and if a parent chooses to spend on education then that is surely their right. It is no different to being free to choose what clothes to buy, where to go on holiday or whether to go to the match on Saturday. It’s your money, you’ve earned it and you can spend it as you see fit.   So why do people draw the line at education (and health).

Is it that health and education are fundamental entitlements that should be available to everyone?  Well they are available to everyone by virtue of the NHS and State schools. So then it must be that it’s not fair for some people to receive “better” than others. Is that based on sound ideology or as above, is it simply jealousy of the  “it’s not fair because I can’t afford it” type. If you break down the ideological argument you can only conclude that no-one should have choice in anything. You simply can’t apply freedom of choice to some things and not to others, purely because you don’t like it. If someone sees a market, is prepared to supply it with a product that people are prepared to pay for then it has to be allowed. I have fairly moderate outgoings because I can’t afford anything much different, but I don’t pretend that high-end spending should be banned.

If you were to ask me whether I think private schools should be allowed then absolutely YES – freedom of choice is a fundamental part of our society and it is a backward step every time we try to erode it – especially with petty jealousy.

If you asked me whether we should need private schools then my answer would be NO. The market for private schools exists largely because of the weaknesses in the state system. If you want to see less private schools then you shouldn’t spend your time attacking them – you should spend your time raising the standards of state schools to reduce the differences highlighted above.

Personally I would like to see selection return to state schools so that we can put like-minded, aspirational children together. Let them be great regardless of their social background – let them flourish and mix with people more likely to push them. I’m not just talking about identifying only the top, putting them together and throwing out the rest. I also want to see streaming going down through all the levels so that pupils are with similarly able and like-minded others and the curriculum and teaching methods can be adjusted according to their needs. When parents start to realise that their child can reach their potential in a state school, many will not even look at a private school.

We need to provide state school teachers with the tools needed to do the job. They are there to teach – not to act as councillors or parents. Stop expecting too much from them and get rid of the ridiculous measurements that simply promote averageness rather than excellence. Encourage better parental engagement. I’m not talking about attending a school fund-raiser. I’m talking about the parent making sure their child knows that a free education is a privilege and not a right. That they are expected to try their best and to behave in school and if they don’t the teacher has the absolute right to discipline them without parental comeback. Make a parent’s evening as much about the what the parents are doing to help as it is about reviewing the child’s performance.

Finally – just accept that nepotism exists at all levels of society. If it happens at the bottom then it will happen at the top and like it or not, you will never get rid of it. However it would be appropriate to break the monopoly of the elite private schools because that level of power amongst such a small number of people is a dangerous thing. Unfortunately, that will take generations to achieve but as with the argument above, it will never be done by attacking the elite. It will be done by raising the influence of other schools. If you want more influence to come from state schools then you must improve the standards within those schools to give the top Universities and employers a better reason to take more students from them. As state school improve, so more influencers will come from them and so the nepotism will spread.

If you have anything to add, then please feel free to comment

Are teachers right to feel undervalued ?

Two-thirds of teachers feel undervalued, says OECD study as reported http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-27985795.

It’s a fair point. They get up every day ready to be in school between 8 & 9 am, apart from the 13 plus weeks of the year when it’s the school holidays, obviously. They sit through a good few hours of lessons trying to pass on wisdom to an audience that might rather be playing on the X-box. Often with the inclusion of the odd little Jonny, who, despite being English, is more likely to become the US president than sit still without misbehaving for a whole lesson. They endure a tortuous lunch hour when they’ve either got to marshal the tear-aways in the playground or sit huddled together with other similarly worn down dreamers in the staffroom. Then between 3 & 4 pm the dark clouds part and a ray of light enters the room as the little rascals drift away, scruffier than when they arrived, and preparations begin to repeat the exercise all over again tomorrow. In between times there might be the added bonus of an extra curricular activity and a bit of homework to be getting on with.

All that and not a word of thanks from anyone.  The only recognition comes when poor little Jonny’s parents introduce themselves and him as the victims of teacher bullying – the fact that he might have stuck chewing gum in a class mate’s hair and sworn at the teacher trying to break up the ensuing fight is little more than a neglected detail.

Sounds to me like they’ve got a point.  As Aristotle proclaimed, “Learning is an ornament in prosperity, a refuge in adversity, and a provision in old age.”  Surely if there is nothing more important than education, then there is nothing more important than the providers of education!

Hold on – let’s take a step back to provide some balance.   I get up at 06:45 to make it to the office at 07:30 each day – that’s when I’m in the office and not travelling.  I sift through a raft of about 50 emails.  A few trying to sell to me, several we’d refer to as “arse covering” and then maybe 1 or 2 of any actual value.   Then the meetings start from around 09:00 and go right through to the end of the day, with odd gaps here and there.  I grab a sandwich for lunch which I eat during a meeting, much to the annoyance of the presenter, who recognises my attention is more focused on the misery of the slightly damp bread rather than his navel gazing analysis.   Then everything starts to wind down and I head for the exit at around 5:30pm so that I can get back home for 6:00pm.   A quick bite to eat, some time with the children and the it’s onto looking through the actions that I’ve picked up during the day and adding them to the growing list that I should have completed yesterday.   Then before I know it the alarm’s bleeping and we’re off again.

To be fair, every month the cycle is broken by a trip or two and as I’m sure you appreciate, travel is an absolute luxury.  It’s usually by plane, which means waking at 05:00 to get to the airport for 06:00, so that I can wait around in discomfort for a good couple of hours.  Then a squeeze into a seat that was surely modelled by primary school children and off we go.  Mid-way through I’ll be provided with some sort of cold sandwich, which provides little benefit other than passing the time, before the man in front decides I need to study his male pattern baldness in more detail by reclining his seat.  I’ve so far avoided the temptation to provide it with a Benny Hill like slap, but I won’t be able to resist forever.  After a few hours of being bumped around and losing any feeling in my legs, we endure a slightly nerve-wracking landing.  Then it’s off to stand in a clearance queue before the “will it/won’t it turn up” conundrum of the baggage carousel.   I’ll always remember standing at a UK airport, hearing an announcement stating that one of the baggage trucks hadn’t made it to the plane, so half the bags were left on the departure runway.  Shouts of “Come on my bag!” as if watching the Derby, echoed through the hall.

Feeling relieved, bags in hand, it’s off to the taxi rank for a journey of unspeakable horror with a driver of suicidal tendencies – this applies especially in European and South American countries and maybe others I’m yet to visit.  I suppose the clue is in the missing seat belts and cracked windscreen, but his car is next in line and you get what you’re given.   At the hotel, a quick beer to relax before checking out the room service – it’s seldom much fun sitting Billy-no-mates in a restaurant on your own.   Then crank up the PC and attempt to log onto the email server through the hotel’s exorbitantly priced internet service.   As the emails download at pre-broadband speed the TV goes on and you flick through a good 50 channels to find the only 2 that speak your language.  After the second news re-run, you flick through again – surely there is something you missed.  In the end it comes down to your language but boring, some irrelevant sport that you’re not the faintest bit interested in, or music.   The music goes on and you start working through all those emails that you’d have got to at 07:30 had you stayed in the office, only now it’s 8pm in the evening.   Lights off at around 11pm and a quick review of the day shows very little achieved apart from being a long way from home.   All that and not a word of thanks – and I only get a few weeks holiday a year, which I can only take when the Company allows me and the prices are through the roof.

I feel undervalued.   Why is no-one writing about me?

Perhaps the truth is that most employees feel undervalued to some extent.  They feel that they work too hard and make too many sacrifices without so much as a by your leave.    It might not be perfect, but unfortunately, that’s life and the recognition comes in the form of a pay check.

Do I value what teachers do? Yes  Do I think they are undervalued? Yes  Do I think they deserve greater recognition?  No more than the vast majority of those being paid to do a job.

Competition for children – good or bad ?

An article on BBC website this morning http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27928066 prompted this post. A slightly daft bit report by Ofsted in my view – pupils at private schools to excel at some sports where financial support is needed to make progress – genius. However, there were a couple of interesting points within it. “The majority of state school heads said competitive sport was optional. Only 13% said they expected all students to take part. The report finds that in the most successful schools, both state and private, heads recognise that competitive sport can help build an ethos and boost grades.”

There have been many debates on whether being competitive is good or bad for children. As you can see from some of the comments on the BBC article. The “it’s good” vote say that life is a competitive, children need to be prepared for the real world and it’s wrong to wrap children in cotton wool. The “it’s bad” vote say that not all children want to take part in competitive sport and it can result in a feeling of exclusion if they aren’t good enough.

Is either view right? I suspect as with most things, the answer is somewhere in the middle.

There is no doubt life is competitive. Exams and qualifications, getting into higher education, getting a job, finding a partner, buying a house, getting a good deal, making a complaint, getting fit, sticking to a diet, inventing time travel …… Whether you are competing with yourself or competing with others, life is competitive.

Spurred on by that intro, I hear the “it’s good” voters cry out for more competition. We need to know who’s won, who’s lost, whether we’re moving up or down the league tables. Is that the way forward ?

A quick dart into the history of 100m sprint tells you plenty about competitive sports. Not one of the runners in the 1980 Olympic 100m final would have made the London final in 2012 and most wouldn’t have even made the semi’s. There is no doubt that competition leads to improvement and evolution is fundamentally about pushing the boundaries further. If everyone around you is achieving better results, then your results will be dragged up. It might not be that you ultimately, win, but consciously or sub-consciously you will try harder to be in the game.

So what’s the issue – competitive sports for all. However let’s go back to the “it’s bad” vote and consider the person who isn’t gifted in an event. Let’s use the Olympics again and look at a swimming Sydney 2000 when Eric Moussambani swam 1m 52s for 100m freestyle compared to the World Record of 48 seconds at the time. As he came down the final 20m the commentators were suggesting he might not make it and would need to grab the lane rope. Fortunately, he survived and received a massive ovation when he finally arrived. Now Eric achieved fame and notoriety for his efforts – after all it was the Olympics and isn’t it as much about taking part.

But how would that have gone down at the local High School? If the teacher didn’t make Eric feel bad enough by shouting all sorts of “encouragement” his way, then you’d be fairly sure the other classmates would plug the gap. And I bet Eric’s confidence might suffer post race and he’s unlikely to be the coolest kid in school anymore. So if you’re no good, why bother if the result might be no better than ridicule ?

It’s a fair point but it’s interesting how the Olympic story is one of triumph against adversity and standing ovations. Yet the High School equivalent is utter misery. But clearly it’s not the competitive sport that’s the issue – it’s the same 100m swimming in both – it is the surroundings and how winning and losing is positioned.

What we shouldn’t do is remove the competition. Eric might be weak at swimming, but great at art or maths or writing. Samantha, who is poor at writing is a great sprinter. Why should she be denied her opportunity to shine. Surely by the same token as the “it’s bad” voters use for competitive sport, writing should be removed from the curriculum.

I am a big supporter of competitive sports and indeed competition in general and it should absolutely be part of education – and I don’t think it should just relate to sports. I recently played a new board game called PLYT with my children. It’s about numeracy but it’s very different from other games I’ve played – firstly because I could actually play properly without pretending to have the mental age of a 7 yr old and secondly because it is competitive. If I’d have told them “here’s an educational game about numeracy” there is no way they’d have played, but it was great and the children loved it – they just wanted to compete, to try to win and to see me and their mum having as much difficulty as they were. As with the 100m sprinting, the more they played, the better they were and they kept pushing the boundaries. Brilliant !

What we have to deal with, however is making sure that people know how to win and lose with right attitude. That in itself is education. We want children at the High School to look at Eric and cheer, applaud and make him feel great about making it to the line regardless of his position. Then maybe Eric might be encouraged rather than discouraged and perhaps next time he’ll clock a couple of seconds quicker – that’s progress and he’s now competing with himself as well as the others.

Winning is great and it does inspire people to push themselves harder so they can be successful. However, it’s not only about winning. It’s about wanting to have a go, wanting to join in with the others and most importantly feeling happy when you’ve done it. But it is the society around you that will determine that most important element – how you feel afterwards.

So let’s promote competition but at the same time let’s educate society on how to treat winners and losers rather than pretend they don’t exist.