Competition – a dirty word in education?


I spent today at the AHDS (Assocation of Headteachers and Deputes Scotland) Conference where I led a couple of workshops about the Seven Sides of Educational Leadership.

I’ll posts a series of short posts about elements of the conference and I’ll kick off with something which Jim Reid (one of the founders of Wolfson Electronics) said about leadership in the commercial world. Jim believes that one of the key characteristics of good leadership is competition. He related this to knowing where the competition was and benchmarking his practice against others.  Jim also stressed the importance of us being competitors in a global environment and the fact we need to take account of what our “competitors” are doing in relation to their education systems.

I couldn’t help feeling a sense growing unease from the audience as he explored this idea.  Competition is not something which people in education are comfortable with – “we don’t do it to be better than other people”.  

Yet I understood what he was getting at – if we want to be good (or “excellent” in education) then we must refer to how others do. As much as we might like to disagree,  quality is not criterion referenced – what was excellent ten years ago would not be excellent now – our competitors have moved on – we do get measured against others , i.e. norm referenced. 

Perhaps if we were really honest with ourselves we might admit to some competitive instinct – albeit only in whispers, and then again only in an empty room.

7 thoughts on “Competition – a dirty word in education?

  1. Hi Don,

    I always feel that kids manage to take part in competition in a healthy way, with adults it often turns unhealthy.

    I suppose it is the context. In outdoor ed for example, competition can be great for both adults and kids. In a professional context, maybe not so.

    Krysia 🙂

  2. I am always reminded of a cartoon in the Guardian some years during John Majors goverment when there was a debate about the usefulness of competitive sports and how the trend was reversing and being questioned in “middle England” schools;

    Two pupils are standing in a playground in a “face-off” situation and one pupil is saying “I bet you that my dad is more non-competitive than your dad”

    It reflected the mood of the time an highlighted that an element of competitiveness is always present both in school and individual performance, whether we like it or not.

  3. I am continually surprised by kids reactions to competitive sport having coached rugby for over 10 years at the same school. The competition is keen and fierce during the match but no matter the result, win or loss ( and there have been some bad ones ), twenty minutes later and the game is forgotten, boys are engrossed in other conversations or asleep on the bus. There only thought is next weeks training or game and the opportunity to play again.

    I would agree with Krysia and say that kids handle competition far better than some adults.

  4. HTs not competitive? Hmmm. I didn’t go to the conference, not being a member, however I’d ask them the question – what’s the first thing they look at in an HMIe report? Do they read the text or do they look at the goods and excellents etc? Do they not already seek out good practice from collegues, the school along the road,in the authority next door? A bit of healthy competition keeps us all on our toes! Most HTs get there because they want to do better, make a difference, improve what our children access. I realised just how competitive I was one day when I was a DHT – the other DHT tidied her side of the office, it was immaculate, so much so that I couldn’t resist tidying my side but went the next step and rearranged my filing too. The next week she told me she’d only tidied up becuase she was sick of the mess at my side, she knew how competitive I was and thought that would prompt me to tidy up my side. And it did!
    I’d also question what drives them – hope or fear. If its hope then we all hope to improve – what better way to improve by finding out how others are doing and learning from that?

  5. Andrea

    Your point about HMIe reports is well made – we all turn to the appendix and add up the scores – but perhaps the system makes us like that?

    Phil, Krysia, Bill

    I didn’t mean to suggest that they were against competition between pupils – but against competition between schools.

  6. Pingback: Don’s Learning Log » Blog Archive » International Competitiveness or just “King o’ the Midden”

  7. Pingback: p a r t y t i m e » Blog Archive » Competition Crisis

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