I’m 7. Twinkly crinkly Mrs McClintock calls me to her desk at the front of the classroom. I enter the cloud of her distinctive aroma (eau de lavender, cats and chalk).
“You came first”, she says. Seeing the blank look on my face, she smiles and explains, “You came top of the class. In the summer tests.”
That was the day I learned about competition in education. It was also the day I learned I was clever.
I’m 11. Sporty, no-nonsense Miss Thompson stops me as I’m putting on my coat to go home.
“All this eczema that’s appeared around your mouth. I hope that’s not because you’re stressing about the 11+ next month. You have nothing to worry about. You’ll do really well.”
That was the day I learned that competing against your classmates can be really stressful. I don’t know whether we had been told, or whether we had absorbed by osmosis the knowledge that the 11+ grades were distributed based on a simple quartile system. I knew though, that to get an A, it wasn’t enough to do my best – I had to do better than three quarters of the rest of the 11 year olds in Northern Ireland.
I’m 16. Mr Muirhead, the Head of Spanish, calls me out of class.
“I’ve just had a letter. You came second in Northern Ireland in your GCSE Spanish. Well done!”
I learned a lot from that one. Because the school timetable hadn’t allowed me to do Spanish as well as German, I had taken Spanish by myself outside school.I found myself having to sit the school tests and mock exams anyway, but in spite of coming top every time, the school disqualified me (on the basis of my unusual status) when it came to the annual prize-giving. With my GCSE result though, there was glory for the school at stake: newspaper articles; rankings; credit to be had for their fine moulding of young minds. The prize was mine.
I’m 18. First term at Cambridge. No eczema this time. Just a permanent knot in the pit of my stomach. Jittery; lump in the throat; scared to talk; mind reeling: “Everyone here is really clever. They’ve all come top in everything. They’ll realise they’ve made a mistake and send me home.” Scared to open my mouth in German oral classes; scared to write things down in Spanish grammar classes. At the end of the year, the exam results come – I’m not the top any more, but at least I’m not
the bottom either. Does being average among the people at the top still mean you’re sort of at the top?
I’m 21, graduating from Cambridge with the highest mark in my college and firsts in most of my papers. Competition in the education system has served me well. People ask what I’m going to do with my Certificate of Cleverness. How am I going to put all those years of striving to reach the top to good use?
Until Mrs McClintock called me to her desk that day, it had never occurred to me to do anything other than pay attention, try my best and learn for the sake of learning. From then on, there were special places to sit in class, ceremonies, certificates and prizes. The worst thing was that every time I won, another prize – a bigger, gleamier, more prestigious prize – would appear demanding to be striven for. At best it was a distraction. At worst it was stressful, undermining my self-confidence, tainting my love of learning, and making me question whose benefit all this competition was really for.
I loved Spanish. Saturday mornings, 10-11a.m., were the highlight of my week. Standard GCSE textbooks were abandoned in favour of poring over my tutor’s old university grammar books, feeling very grown up drinking real coffee while his son and baby daughter played next door. I was heartbroken when the exam came round and our weekly sessions had to end. The fact alone that I had asked for this; that I was choosing to spend my Saturday mornings in this way out of nothing more than a desire to learn should have been enough to show that I was working hard, doing my best. But the school needed to compare me to the rest, and when I came top by some margin, the goalposts suddenly changed. They changed back again when it suited the school. Still, with my £5 book token in the bag and a national ranking to boast about on the Cambridge application, I could hardly complain.
Except that for me, learning Spanish would never again be for love. It took me years after graduating to remember how to read for pleasure. I would open a book and race through it as fast as my eyes could take me. In the absence of an essay title to direct my hunt for themes, I skimmed pages and pages without taking in more than the sketchiest outline of what I was reading. I didn’t want a job that used my languages. I never wanted to speak Spanish again. No more courses. No more exams. No more education.
From Competition to Compassion
I’m 31. I have stopped competing. I could write for days about the learning curve, the tough lessons, embarrassing mistakes and self-development that I have encountered in the ten years since leaving formal education, but it’s not glamorous and there are no accolades. Homelessness support worker, local government policy officer, having babies – it’s certainly not what my top-of-the-class education set me up for; it’s better.
I am now approaching the education system as a parent. My four-year-old is due to start school tomorrow. Her peers will dress in identical clothes and enter a system in which the primary way of obtaining recognition and differentiating themselves from each other will be to compete. She won’t be joining them, instead mixing home education with a couple of days a week at a local Steiner school where her own curiosity, self-motivation and compassion will be free to unfold in their own way and at their own pace.
As I write, the UK government is dragging its heels, dithering about offering any meaningful support to the millions of displaced people fleeing violence in the Middle East and Africa. The media persists in perpetuating the notion that these ‘migrants’ are seeking to come here to take something from us, supported by politicians who crassly accuse those who die on the way as being ‘greedy for the good life’ and self-righteously proclaim that refusing to offer asylum on any significant scale is somehow for the refugees’ own good.
I recognise an echo of a schooling which drilled into me that even when I have plenty, it’s not enough unless I have more than everyone else; that in order for me to be the best, I need someone else to be the worst; that I don’t need to care how it feels for my classmate who always comes bottom, as long as I always come top; that it doesn’t matter what the rules are or if they’re fair, as long as I get a prize in the end.
I recognise the same echo in the policies of austerity, in the rhetoric of ‘hardworking families’ being pitted against benefit scroungers. I see it in the self-entitled ramblings of politicians proposing to ‘shake the box of cornflakes’ so that the mediocre and incompetent don’t hold the rest of us deserving, intelligent people back and stop us rising to our rightful place at the top of the tree. I see it in our consumerist society where even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that our climate is changing and resources are running out, people continue to upgrade their phones and cars and houses every year because everyone else is doing the same.
Our world desperately needs people with the strength to stand up to injustice; with the compassion to make personal sacrifices to help those in need; with the creativity to solve the social and environmental problems of our time. Action to address most of these challenges is long
overdue, and for some time is running out. We must free ourselves and our children from competitive education – let’s stop trying to beat each other – it’s the only way we will ever be able to work together to beat the challenges we face instead.