Is this actually true?
Let's talk about that idea for a moment.
Before Sports Day, parents prepare their children for participation. Perhaps they are competing in several races or events. Of course, there will be plenty of ambitious mummies and daddies who coach their children to win. To be the first over the finishing line, or the highest jumper, or the furthest thrower. But there can only be one winner, although there might be a silver and bronze medallist who take their position just below the victor. So if it's highly unlikely that a child is going to end up assuming one of these three coveted roles, why bother entering them for the race at all?
Because it's not the winning, but the taking part that counts.
Many of us would say that we support and agree with this notion. I do. Perhaps you do too. And if you do subscribe to this sentiment, you probably hope that anyone who's taking part in something will benefit from the process, and learn something positive and helpful, and feel proud of themselves at the end because they made the effort and worked hard even if they didn't win.
So, does this actually happen?
That's a very difficult question to answer, isn't it? It's not really measurable. It depends on all sorts of factors. Wouldn't it be great, though, if it did happen? If children had the confidence to take part in all sorts of activities, irrespective of ability and likely outcome, and were secure enough in the belief that they were good at something and that the thing they were good at was important and valued and significant and worthwhile?
So at what point do children get the impression that being clever is better than being kind, or more desirable than being gifted in a practical sense? Where do they pick up this idea?
Why, at school, of course. When they're just starting out as people, and when they're being prepared for the rest of their lives.
I hope that doesn't sound too harsh. Or critical. Or dismissive of all the fantastic things that teachers do for their students on a daily basis. I've been a teacher, so I hope you'll forgive me for offering some thoughts on our education system which are not meant in any way to be discouraging of all the great work that goes on every day in lots and lots of schools. Schools are more than just students and teachers. There are policies and strategies and initiatives and targets to incorporate. And it's worth stopping to consider the effect they have - the actual, real-life effect that is being exerted every day upon thousands of children in thousands of schools as a result of all these policies and strategies and initiatives and targets.
Children are measured against a set of standards right from the word go. This is a good thing in many ways. It promotes ambition and hard work and aspiration and a sense of striving for the next step. It also facilitates and encourages comparison between pupils. One pupil achieves something straight away, and another takes months to get there. One can read fluently and another one struggles. One is in the top set and another languishes in the bottom stream. One gets an A and one gets a G. One gets an award at prizegiving for achieving a string of top GCSEs and the other one doesn't. One's at the top, and another's at the bottom.
That's life, isn't it? And what happened to it's not the winning, but the taking part that counts?
Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, was in the news a great deal last week. He has apparently come up with a plan to do away with the all-encompassing GCSE qualification and reintroduce some sort of two-tier exam system, such as the UK used many years ago. I say "apparently" because we're not supposed to know about any of this, the information having been leaked to the Daily Mail by an unnamed source and revealed, unfortunately, before this year's round of GCSE exams have been completed. Predictably, some people are strongly in favour of the plan (one journalist even declared "Gove for PM!" following the announcement) and others are frothing at the mouth about the unfairness and stupidity of Gove's idea. Nick Clegg, the telegenic Deputy Prime Minister, is vehemently opposed to the notion of scrapping GCSEs and said, "I am not in favour of anything that would lead to a two-tier system where children at quite a young age are somehow cast on a scrap heap." And my question is this: Why should being academically less successful mean that anyone is destined to be cast on a scrap heap? What about other talents and skills and strengths? Do they count for nothing at all?
For years, the UK has used a broadly consistent public examination system. Pupils attend lessons and learn their stuff, complete coursework (with varying amounts of input from parents and teachers) and sit exam papers. In some subjects, a Foundation (easier) or Higher (harder) option is available. Children with learning difficulties are given extra time to complete their exams. Those with broken wrists are equipped with a scribe. And every single year the spread of results is roughly the same. Those who get the highest marks are awarded A*s. Those who get the lowest marks are given Us. There's a clearly defined top and bottom. And there are lots of reasons for this, but here's one that stands out for me: it's because some pupils have the capability to flourish within this specific exam system, and others don't. So what happens to the pupils who get the Us?
Well, for a start, they probably don't feel very good about being at the bottom of the pile. They are likely to struggle with the next step of school, so they're discouraged - virtually prevented - from joining the exclusive club known as The Sixth Form. They won't go to university, because you need A-Levels to go to university. Doors are slamming in their faces all over the place. You can't do that - you're not clever enough. Hopefully they'll get a job, but there's still the issue of all those U grades. What does an "Unclassified" - a "not even worthy of a grade" - do to someone's self-esteem, do you suppose? Yet this is the only option available at the moment. The system is not working for everyone. Not even close. And it should do. It has a responsibility to at least try to do so.
So what happened to it's not the winning that counts? Is it actually true at all?
No one has all the answers. I certainly don't. There are far too many factors to consider. I'm not sure there can be one "best" way to run the country's system of education. But anyone who opposes a two-tier system on the grounds of fairness should think very carefully before tossing around phrases like "cast on a scrap heap", because under the current, single-tier way of doing things there are many, many children for whom this already feels like a daily reality. I have taught pupils for whom an E grade is an amazing achievement. Yet in this world of league tables (which only recognise the grades A*, A, B and C as "passes" and consider all others to be "fails"), it can feel very much as if it's only the winning that counts. Some pupils work as hard as they can, and devote everything they have in them to their exams, and are not rewarded for their hard work but are instead labelled as failures. Inferior. Bottom of the pile. Losers.
If only we could somehow work out a way to promote the idea that being academically able leads to just one type of success, and that there are many more equally important and valuable ways to succeed. If only we could find a way to encourage and spur on and inspire and help children to reach their own individual potential without looking first at those around them, and to identify and use their unique sets of skills with pride and energy and joy. If only children didn't look over at their classmates and say, you can read and I can't. You're in the top set and I'm languishing in the bottom set. You got an A and I got a G. You've won a prize and I haven't. You're a winner and I'm a loser.
Wouldn't that be great?
How can we make it happen?