The winner takes it all

When it comes to self-esteem, says Dean Close School’s Justin Slade, staff largely define the domains within which pupils succeed. Or don’t…

Imagine a school in an alternate world where, every Saturday, young people board buses for matches with cassocks, not sports kit. The 1sts are ascendant, having won the nationals at St Paul’s – the cathedral, not the school. A controversial standing ovation in chapel left more traditional teachers in barely suppressed apoplexy, yet the Head of Choir, fresh from her detailed report on the school’s singing teams to Headmaster’s assembly, is a proud and popular young woman today. So is Jim Bailey, whose, “rich, yet accurate bass” anchored the winning Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine.

The ‘non-choir’ singers feel less important however. Their ‘choirmaster’ often turns up without music, and they grudgingly join in yet another unison rendition of ‘Jerusalem’. Despite some being superb regional and even national sporting talents, they still haven’t mastered the high E on ‘built’. They hate Saturdays, and this one is awful – two hours each way to St. Algernon’s. The 1sts are in the enormous, beguilingly weightless, chapel; the 4ths are in a small music practice room. Some have tried spectacularly hard to absent themselves, inventing obscure throat ailments and all but hugging anyone with a genuine virus since Monday morning. One can’t blame them – most infinitely prefer running around a sports field. Their presence merely populates the fixture to sustain its viability.

Would the social topography of our schools change if this was a reality? Research on self-esteem would suggest so. Self-esteem isn’t ‘global’ – we rarely feel great about ourselves for no reason, and to do so suggests a disturbing narcissism. Self-esteem is ‘domain-specific’, and in schools, staff largely define the domains within which pupils succeed, or don’t; with competitive team sports being a major focus. Publishing academic grades on notice boards is controversial and engenders fierce debate, yet we routinely publicly classify whole schools by a team number or letter, arbitrarily gifting self-esteem to those who happen to be bigger, run fast or have great hand-eye coordination. They are the winners who take it all.

“We need to create balanced co-curricular programmes that generate and spread self-worth, allowing all our pupils to find their talent, and shine.”

The losers often ‘stand small’. Self-esteem is a zero-sum game – a ‘scarce and contested resource’ as one academic puts it. The 4ths will struggle to access the self-esteem enjoyed by the mighty 1sts, despite the valiant efforts of dedicated coaches. Self-esteem is not gold however – we can be its alchemists and create winners by how we publicly value alternative domains. The predominance of competitive team sport is surely unassailable – and inter-school competitive fixture calendars for singing, improvisational drama, orienteering or chamber music will stay in an alternate world – but generating more value in schools for the many who have real talents in these and other fields is a worthy challenge.

This touches on complex issues surrounding co-curricular education, the value of competition and sport, and what creates self-esteem – brevity precludes deeper investigation. There is an important conversation to be had however. We often fret over cliquey hierarchies, social exclusion, low self-esteem, asymmetric power and bullying in schools, yet do we create the social structures that facilitate these problems by consistently over-privileging races that certain people are always bound to win, and others lose? In a screen-obsessed adolescence, we need to promote physical exercise more than ever, but also create balanced co-curricular programmes that generate and spread self-worth, allowing all our pupils to find their talent, and shine.

Justin Slade is Director of Social, Emotional and Mental Health at Dean Close School.


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