Competition is a part of life and when today’s pupils reach adulthood, they will need to find their niche in an increasingly competitive world.
But how do schools ensure that encouraging a culture of competitiveness does not have a negative impact on those children who have a tendency to lose confidence in their abilities, or opt out of challenging situations altogether for fear of failure?
We invited a group of senior leaders from independent schools to a roundtable discussion where they shared some of their top tips on how schools can stretch, and not strain, their pupils.
1. Focus on personal best
Each school takes its own approach to pupil competition. This is an important part of a school’s individual identity. Some senior leaders hold the view that to create a culture where healthy competition is championed, pupils need to be encouraged to think less about what their classmates are good at, and focus on their own, personal goals.
“Competition is about looking sideways at what others are doing,” explained Rosie Gill, Head of Radnor House School. “Aspiration is much more healthy – it is about looking forwards and concentrating your efforts on what is ahead of you.”
Success can be measured in a variety of ways, and many schools have a focus on recognising pupils’ individual strengths and praising them for their efforts.
“Every child can succeed in something and a school’s reporting and reward systems should underpin this view,” Rosie continued, “Success isn’t restricted to the classroom, it can be found in the drama studio, sports pitch or music room. We ensure pupils feel valued for thinking of others too.”
2. Promote well-being
With reports of soaring stress levels hitting the headlines, heads recognise the vital part schools play in promoting emotional well-being.
Cobham Hall School has introduced a mindfulness programme to help ensure pupils have the tools they need to combat issues such as stress and anxiety. “We encourage pupils to choose from a range of activities and skills such as yoga, meditation, dance or basketball, until they find the one which suits them best and helps them work towards a state of mindfulness,” explained Paul Mitchell, Headmaster.
This approach is most successful when the concept of wellbeing is embedded into the school curriculum, as Kevin Knibbs, Headmaster of Hampton School, suggests. “Our mindfulness programme is at the heart of our school, not bolted on. It helps us all to be kinder to ourselves in a fast-paced, competitive world.”
3. Build resilience
Schools have a responsibility to teach pupils to handle failure as well as success, said one head. There are many situations in school that can test a child’s resilience – failing an exam, missing out on the lead role in a play or not being selected for the rugby team. But children will emerge stronger when they learn from these events.
“It is important to encourage talented young people to realise that you can learn a lot more from the things that don’t go well than you might from the things that do,” said Paul Mitchell.
“Teachers should be encouraged to share examples of how they have recovered from a setback in life,” added Paul. “This can reinforce to pupils that it’s not about failing, but about getting back up again afterwards.”
4. Engage parents
When parents are on board with a school’s approach to competition, they are better placed to support their child.
“Many parents are highly aspirational,” said Kevin Knibbs. “They know how competitive it is out there, and they have high expectations of their child and of the school.”
However, schools can also secure the backing of parents in helping pupils to learn from their failures as well as their successes.
“Schools need to work with parents to help them see that not getting elected as school captain is not going to be the most serious disappointment their child will ever face,” said Jill Berry, former Headmistress of Dame Alice Harpur School.
When managed well, healthy competition not only boosts achievement, it also encourages pupils to value their strengths and helps them cope with ups and downs of life in the world beyond school.