I was one of very few non-Catholics at my convent school. Somehow, a place had come up and I passed the interview which meant I spent the next 7 years trying to blag my way through mass! What went down well at the interview was the fact that I told them I loved reading and maths, had taught myself music and was a self-identified perfectionist – I was let into a rare world of high expectations both academic and behavioural in a very, very disadvantaged inner city area and competition was a key part of that world.
My entire year group was streamed and I was in the top form. The forms were given names of EU countries and even though we weren’t supposed to know the form rankings, we all knew where each class was in the academic hierarchy (partly because the classes were in order down the form corridor and the further down the corridor you went, the worse the behaviour got). Girls frequently moved between classes after the end of year subject tests and if you moved up to our class then you knew you were going places. Despite our distinctly non-middle-class backgrounds, we were high achieving. We were also fiercely competitive.
Looking back, I realise I was incredibly lucky because not only did this environment help propel me to academic success (although my A levels went a bit Pete Tong due the need, at one point, to work endless hours to pay rent!), but I also believe that it imbued me with the kind of resilience to weather the storm that shattered my life and then go on to drag myself up, still aiming high, never giving up (I am still trying to repair the damage). How do I know it was the school and not my upbringing? Well, I did have a lot of religion in my life and there’s nothing like the threat of Hell to keep you on the straight and narrow, but in terms of academic focus, it was the constant competition that helped most of all. Plus the strict nuns, obviously, and the lack of good lookin’ boys to distract us (I was at an all girls school).
What was I focused on? Was I focused on the ever impending homelessness and the fact that I was one of the very few girls to have seriously unfashionable trainers? No. I was focused on getting the top percentage marks, particularly in the science and maths exams, and beating some other people in my class. The top classes in our year group also subtly competed against each other. It wasn’t a mean thing and nobody ever rubbed their 97% pass mark in anyone else’s faces, but we girls would be asking each other what we got when the end of year tests were handed back and there was this acceptance and acknowledgement that low marks were due to lack of effort and practice (it should be noted there were no children with SEN in these classes); those girls who got the highest marks were the ones who were doing 3 hours of homework a night and we all knew this and then gave them a hearty slap on the back when they ended up with the top results. It’s amazing how mature teenage girls can be, actually. All our essays were graded too – we were all competing for an A+ and I remember helping disorganised friends put together their essays and projects at the last minute! The shadow of competition hung over my academic life, this sense of always preparing for the end of year test and it made me work very hard indeed. I didn’t want to let myself, my family, my teachers or my school down. It should also be noted that my mum, who is wonderful and a hippy through and through, was never bothered about my grades (although she was proud of me) and didn’t put any pressure on me at all; in fact, she did tell me that if I ever wanted to just opt out and be a beach bum, she’d still love and be proud of me – so, pretty much zero pressure to achieve coming from home then.
Many, if not most, educators (even the traditional ones) would recoil at the above homage to competition. They would say that we should not ever allow children to feel the emotional pain of not doing well relative to others, and that we also shouldn’t allow the high achievers to think too much of themselves or be allowed to advertise their prowess – it is far better to encourage children to only compete against themselves.
I’d like to challenge that, even though I accept that as a pretty much lone voice on this.
Firstly, as I have stated above, I’m pretty sure that this competition helped us all to develop some resilience and don’t forget we were all from disadvantaged, working class and/or immigrant backgrounds. So many went on to university and their later achievements and successes, despite poverty or the need to look after relatives, were and still are amazing. Being able to cope with intermittent stress and not completely losing the plot when the going gets tough is an important life lesson we should all learn; I often wonder if the current dominance in education of relatively wealthy, middle class people might mean that this wisdom is ignored simply because many teachers have never had to deal with (and will never deal with) the kind of stress that disadvantaged children have to deal with. Nothing screams ‘out of touch’ more than hearing a fellow educator bewail the fact that without her unearned share income from her daddy’s company, she wouldn’t be able to afford a lovely holiday in the Bahamas*.
Secondly, I think competition gives you something better to focus on during those teenage years – something that is powerful enough to override the peer pressure, the mighty urges to experiment and rebel with drink, drugs or sex. This kind of goal-oriented focus is the reason why adults are more successful in developing an exercise habit if there is a marathon that must be run, or losing weight if there is a size 10 wedding dress that must be worn in 6 months. Simply saying to young people ‘aim high’ is just like saying ‘be healthy’; it’s just too woolly and not enough to counter the urge to procrastinate or put immediate gratification first.
Thirdly, I also disagree with this tacit rule that those who ace the tests should not be allowed any airtime, just in case someone else feels bad about it. But what if acing a test is all a child has to feel good about themselves? It’s all I had at school, frankly: I was shy, socially inadequate, bespectacled, unfashionable, poor, terribly unfit, a bit fat and covered in acne. We allow the school sportsmen to have their trophies and airtime at the front of the school in assemblies, why not the mathematicians? Based on the underlying thinking of this tacit ‘no airtime’ rule, we should ban sports competition just in case the lanky nerds feel upset.
Finally, there is the reality that life really is one big competition. Maybe not for middle class educator who had their path in life prepared for them by parents with the time, money and effort to put their children before themselves and the privilege of a job for life with pension provided by the public sector, but definitely for the ordinary Jo. Even for those who end up in call centres and supermarket checkouts, there will always be competition although not in terms of ‘effort’ as is celebrated in many schools – implying that those who churn out the goods and results should accept that they will always need to do more than and support (the lack of productivity of) others – but in terms of productivity, efficiency and efficacy. ‘Just compete against yourself’ might not be enough for a disadvantaged child to develop the kind of work ethic that would inoculate themselves against the brutal reality of scarce jobs and incredibly expensive housing that awaits them. Even those who dream of a life in academia face a pretty rough ride that only the most intense competitive focus and hard work will overcome.
I guess that the main difference between now and then was that back then everybody just accepted the status quo: if you worked hard you got the top grades, but if you were a bit of a slacker you would get your comeuppance at the end of the year (and possibly be relegated to a different class). Everyone got stressed during exam week, and there was a fair bit of frantic last minute revision going on, but no one was having to see the school therapist about it all – it was just how it was and we all just had to get on with it, rather than take to emoting all over each other. Besides, exams really were a walk in the park compared to living in a rough neighbourhood (where, ironically, a walk in the park was somewhat stressful).
I know that despite my reasoning above, we, as a profession, would never willingly introduce the school culture I experienced above (except in the top private schools), but it would be great to know that somebody, somewhere, reads this and thinks ‘Do you know, real competition might not be as terrible as they say!’
Who’s with me?