Competition in schools is damaging children.
Report after report tells us that children are experiencing anxiety and poor mental health at record levels. Kids report that school pressure is a major cause of anxiety for them…Academics tells (sic) us that intense competition, rankings and endless exams are damaging children. Creativity, critical thinking, sport, art, ethics, character and courage are sacrificed in the race to gather data, to beat other countries, other schools, other students…to the point where we must ask: what is school for? Why do we need an education? Australian schools are sausage factories producing students who know how to win at exams rather than think creatively or critically. Teachers, students and principles (sic) are in revolt. Other countries show there’s a better way. Why aren’t policymakers listening?” The Guardian, March 6, 2017.

To whom should we listen?

For a start, I’m not sure I can agree with being told our whole education system is flawed by a newspaper that cannot tell the difference between the words principals and principles.

As usual, I will not speak for other schools but I do not believe St Columba is a “sausage factory” or a place where “sport, art, ethics, character and courage are sacrificed in the race to gather data, to beat other countries, other schools, other students.”

I believe that you could not look at our efforts in performing arts, sport or educational innovation and believe we have sacrificed education on the altar of exam marks at all costs.

There is no doubt that schooling can be stressful for some students, particularly as it gets to the “pointy end” where the Higher School Certificate looms on the horizon.

At St Columba, our education seeks to prepare our students for a fulfilling life: a life where challenges are met and overcome, where occasional defeat is a learning experience and a life spent in service to others is as important as accumulating harbourside real estate etc.

Part of that preparation for our students must be developing resilience and accepting that things will not always be easy and that sometimes there will be stress and deadlines, demands and compliances.

I am not claiming our system of schooling is perfect or that the pressure of the current HSC is a perfect system for identifying talent but I would prefer our students to learn about the pressures they will face in the world in a safe environment, rather than being educated to believe that everything will come to them without effort, patience or hard work (and then finding out the hard way that this is not true).

At our school we are aware that some students respond to pressure and competition better than others. In fact, some revel in the challenges and love being “stretched” to see how well they can do.

For those who do not naturally find these stressors invigorating, we spend time working with them to develop, if not a love of competition, then the resilience to allow them to deal with the realities they will face in life.

Assessment tasks, deadlines, examinations, competitions combined with group work, differentiation, identifying and nurturing individual talents and passions provide students with a balanced view of the world and the skills needed to flourish. This is our view of education.

I am sorry if the journalist or the speaker at the conference she refers to had a negative experience at school but I do not believe that our whole educational system or the teachers who work to make education an engaging and positive experience need generalisations like this to help them do their job better.

I think that taking away all pressure and the responsibility for facing up to tasks can lead to “cotton wool kids”: “Cotton wool kids have trouble coping, behaving, showing respect and taking responsibility for their actions in an escalating trend, leading to “greater numbers of children who won’t take responsibility for their own actions, follow instructions, work independently or respect others and property.” Australian Early Development Census National Report, 2016

Not a risk we want to take with our students’ lives.

Tips for building resilience in children: Andrew Fuller, clinical psychologist and Generation Next speaker.

  1. Make connections: Teach children how to make friends and develop empathy. Encourage them to be a friend in order to get friends. At school, watch to make sure that one child is not being isolated. Connecting with people provides social support and strengthens resilience.
  2. Teach children to help others: Children who may feel helpless can be empowered by helping others. Ask for help with a task they can master. At school, brainstorm with children about ways they can help others.
  3. Daily routine: Following a routine can be comforting to children, especially younger children who crave structure in their lives. Encourage children to develop their own routines.
  4. Take a break: Although it is important to stick to routines, endlessly worrying can be counter-productive. Show children how to focus on something besides what’s worrying them.
  5. Self-care for children: Teach child the importance of making time to eat properly, groom themselves, exercise and rest. Children need ‘downtime’ to relax, so make sure that not all free time is filled with a scheduled activity.
  6. Goals: Teach children to set reasonable goals and move toward them one step at a time. Moving toward that goal and receiving praise for doing so will focus children on what they have accomplished.
  7. Nurture a positive self-view: Help children remember ways that they have successfully handled hardships in the past and how this can help them handle future challenges. Help children learn to trust themselves to solve problems and make appropriate decisions.
  8. Be optimistic: Even when children are facing very painful events, help them look at the situation in a broader context. A positive outlook enables children to see the good things in life and keep going even in the hardest times.
  9. Self-discovery: Change and tough times are often when children learn the most about themselves. Help children to see that this is a good time to find out “what they are made of.” Change can be scary for young people, help them to see that change is part of life.
  10. Make home a safe haven: In high school, taunting and bullying can intensify – home should be a haven, especially as your teen encounters more freedoms and choices and looks to home to be a constant, safe and emotionally secure place in his or her life.