Education, Competition and the ‘Global Race’ – An idea to interrupt the discourse

The issue of competition in schools is one the perennial bugbears of those committed to developing more socially progressive forms of education. Indeed having to say “more socially progressive forms of education” is indicative of the dominance of discourses of competition in education because you can’t really use the right-left distinction because New Labour and One-Nation-might-become-Next Labour are happy to hoist a hammock and doze in the apparently unproblematic space between the two pillars of competition and collaboration.

In the mainstream media and political discourse, there are two broad narratives of education:

One is a competitive vision of schools, in a world that is, red in tooth and claw. From the genetic to the global the gnashing and rending of the strong ousting the weak is a (or the) key principle of the right view of education. Education is presented as a constant process of selection, of smarter girls sitting at the front of the class, of the goal scorer on the winning side held aloft while the losers slink away, of ribbons and places at Oxbridge won and all through this the character building process of spurning the dread taste of defeat and the joyous pleasure of a foe bested. This journey takes the quivering, pale child and adds the grit, gall and gumption to become the captain of industry or an Olympic gold-medal winning champion. With seamless logic schools also compete against one another in this search for character, ethos or some other intangible quality… perhaps with the policy aim of seeing the first inner-city free school rising to become the CEO of a FTSE 100 company and an academy chain winning the 4 x 400 relay in the 2032 Olympics.

Opposed to this is ‘the prizes for all’, dumbed-down, celebration of mediocrity and tyranny of the poverty of aspiration that the ‘enemies of promise’ shackle every poor child they can get their hands on… with the inarguable logic that every left wing family is made up of a teacher father, a social worker daughter and a prison guard brother, and e dad’s determination that his failure will keep ex-pupils in the system and his kids in work.

So, what to do?

A first step is found in Melissa Benn’s book ‘School Wars’ (2012), where she points out that the reason why the 11+ was discontinued was largely because increasing numbers of middle-class parents lambasted politicians, outraged when their children failed the exam and ended up in a secondary modern.

In this there is a germ of an idea for how to engage with the obsession with competition in education. Although we have to recognise that society has changed – see for example David Boyle’s book ‘Broke: Who killed the middle class?’ – that the middle class are the key driver of social change in class obsessed Britain. Yet this observation, this locus for engagement, is hugely problematic because the education system is currently rigged in the favour of the middle classes, with property prices excluding access to school catchment areas (ref) in addition to a whole host of other tricks (ref). So, how to turn the middle class against a system that works in their favour?

Of course, one option is normative cum political rant but there is the odd mix of self-interest and ideology, indeed if the two are different, in the middle class affinity with competition so it’s a tricky one to disprove by evidence or plaintiff cries. This so far hasn’t worked.

I live near a fee-charging, independent day school where each morning parents in fancy cars or predominantly Range Rovers drop their children off before they drive, I’m guessing, to their well-remunerated jobs in competitive industries. One time in a department store for the well healed I heard a store announcement for this demographic, “Come to the Computing & Phones section to buy the [brand name and model] laptop, give your child an unfair advantage when they go back to school.” I think this speaks to the perspective that it’s a tough world out there and ensuring your child has all the unfair advantages means they will get the opportunities to get on in life. And to be honest, who can argue with a parent wanting the best for their child? Even if that means leveraging the advantages they have and other children will lose out because as we know the game is rigged so middle-class children win. So, what to do?

I think one option is to draw parallels between this competitive mode for education and anti-smoking campaigns. One reason for learning from anti-smoking campaigns is that in a generation smoking has gone from popular to pariah, well at least amongst the middle-class. Although we should probably have qualms about stoking the guilt of parent’s, there is arguably something in bringing together evidence that competition harms children and more specifically will harm your child even if they ‘win’ the place at university and the graduate scheme. A key part of this is the acknowledgement that as a parent you can smoke (be competitive) but there are implications for your child (as in passive smoking).

There is, for example, evidence that selection and competition is stressful for children , and can provide disincentives for those that ‘lose’. This message can be countered by ‘toughening little Jonny up’ so there is the issue that in its current form competition requires standardised testing, which leads to teaching to the test, which leads to narrowing the curriculum, and this means less time learning different types of skills – the kind that are needed in an increasingly needed in a more complex and challenging workplace where ‘the jobs of 5 years time are yet to be invented’. Added to all this is the negative effect of competition in schools on teacher job satisfaction and retention, engendering a ‘paradox of performativity’ that drives out the best teachers (Goodson 2003). The central message is that as a middle-class parent your child can ‘win’ in a competitive system but even if they do they will have suffered needlessly and prevented from benefiting from a broader and more enriching education that would prepare them for a future you can’t imagine. All of this would need to be supported by the development of credible alternatives not founded on competition in classrooms and in school systems.

My favourite anti-smoking campaign is the American Legacy Foundation’s Truth Campaign where people dump body bags in front of a tabaco firm’s headquarters to drive home the message that smoking isn’t cool or rebellious. The simple fact is that smoking kills 1,200 people each day and rich, corporate types get richer the more cigarettes they sell. That really cuts through the corporate-funded advertising.

So to complement the message that competition needlessly harms your child now and in the future is the question: why are classrooms, schools and the school system being rewired to compete? Well, the reasons are complex but one consequence is that some people are getting richer and stand to make a lot of money (e.g., Boffey 2013).

James Duggan

PS: This blog is missing a couple of references. I’ll add these when I get a moment.

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