Sunday, 8 December 2013

The competitive edge

Concern is sometimes expressed about the way in which the upper echelons of our society seem to be occupied by men and women who were privately educated. The senior judiciary, medical profession, the government and civil service all seem to be in the grip of those who attended independent schools. Nor is this all. As I pointed out the other day;  athletics and sport also have more than their fair share of such people.  

What are private schools doing that maintained schools are not, that their pupils manage to make it high up so many different ladders? Obviously, the education on offer in such places is a good deal better than that which one is likely to see at the average comprehensive, but there is another factor to take into account. This is the competitive spirit which is fostered in independent schools and actively discouraged in  those run by local authorities.  I looked a couple of days ago at a typical PE lesson in a low performing primary school and explained how the very notion of competition was seen as being a bad thing; something to be suppressed. Anybody who has seen a sports day at the average maintained school will know just what I mean! It is not only in sport though that this spirit has been crushed and eradicated. Remember end of term reports; where the children were ranked according to how well they did in various subjects? Spelling and general knowledge contests? These have all gone now. Striving to be better at things than your classmates is seen as being not quite the thing. Nobody is better than anybody else and being clever, strong or fast will not help you to achieve recognition. There are no longer any losers. However, if there are no losers; neither are there any winners. How different, how very different, is the situation in independent schools!

Whether on the playing field or at end of term tests; pupils in private schools are urged to compete with one another and try to be better than the next boy or girl. Many schools have house systems, where different groups will  be encouraged to enter into ferocious rivalry; both academic and athletic. We saw recently about some aspects of the hidden curriculum at state schools. This then is part of the hidden curriculum in the private sector; being taught to fight for a higher place and win competitions. How does this help the children at these schools to get on? Let’s consider somewhere else where privately educated children appear to have more than their fair share of influence; the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, sometimes known collectively as Oxbridge.  To get a place at Oxbridge, it is not enough just to get, for example, five or six A levels. That sort of thing is taken for granted; it is a pre-condition, if you like, of even entering the game.  The game of getting into those universities is really a fierce competition. Pupils from state schools are often handicapped in this game. They are used to waiting their turn. They hand over their AS level results, make their application and expect to be awarded a place as their reward for having studied hard. Nothing of the sort! There are aptitude tests to be taken before an interview is even considered and a personal statement to be polished. If you are lucky, you will be offered an interview. However, there are five or six times as many applicants as there are places to be offered. This really is a competition! If they get to interview, then there are often written tests to be taken there as well and then long, difficult conversations  with world famous specialists. Around 80% will be rejected.  This kind of thing is very familiar to any pupil from an independent school; they know about contests where only one person scoops the winner’s prize.  Not so the kid from the state school; this is all being played by rules which are new to him!

This is where home education can give a child an edge. Maintained schools might set out to blunt the competitive spirit, but we are not bound to follow the same philosophy. Children educated at home can actually find themselves on an even footing with pupils from the best private schools, if that is what their parents wish. Instead of being systematically handicapped, as so often happens at state schools, they can be inculcated with the same ethos which gives independently educated pupils their edge.


  1. This is all very true, Simon. We see the same thing in Norway, and I can't help but wonder whether the crux of the problem might be the drive to create an egalitarian society.

    I completely believe in equal opportunities, but have a big problem with trying to create equal results through hobbling the naturally strong. This is where many state-run systems in social democracies go wrong.

    I wonder whether independent schools see the value of encouraging competition because they themselves have to compete for students. State schools are pretty much guaranteed "clients" and income, whereas independent schools need to maintain a competitive edge in order to attract custom.

    "Children educated at home can actually find themselves on an even footing with pupils from the best private schools, if that is what their parents wish."

    Very true. There's a good article on exactly this point, written by a dad whose home-educated daughter was offered places at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Penn, and Brown. She chose Harvard and is excelling there, too. The article is available here:

    His key point echoes what you said:

    "What did we teach Dakota that isn’t being taught in the public schools of Nevada? Since almost the day that Dakota was born, her mom and dad taught her the importance of work ethic -- that to succeed she would have to out work, out shine, out smart, and out hustle every other student."

    Of course, not every home educated child could or even should aim for Oxbridge or Ivy League institutions, but it's encouraging to know that it can be done.


    1. 'Of course, not every home educated child could or even should aim for Oxbridge or Ivy League institutions, but it's encouraging to know that it can be done.'

      The Oxbridge and Ivy league universities all have a fair sprinkling of home educated children. My own daughter did not attend school for a single day and is now in her final year at Oxford, studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics. She knows of other home educated students. What these kids have in common is that they were taught by their parents to take responsibility for their own work and achievements and also to aim as high as they could. The commonest complaint of state educated pupils who fail to get a place at Oxford is, 'It's not fair!' This tells us all we need to know about the mentality fostered in these schools.

      'a big problem with trying to create equal results through hobbling the naturally strong'

      This takes place all the time in the classrooms of this country's maintained schools and is another reason why the children being educated there do not even make it to the starting line when it comes to getting into Oxbridge or pursuing careers in medicine and law.

  2. Oh help, I'm agreeing with you again, Simon.

    I've 'borrowed' some of my best projects from Wellington College's website. I particularly like their eight aptitudes of intelligence and their starting point of not 'is this child intelligent' but 'in what way is the child intelligent.'

    And once you've worked that out, HE means you can work with that child's weaknesses and strengths and focus on them as needed, whether that is encouraging self confidence and learning something apparently as basic as ordering food in a restaurant or advanced calculus (Or both at once, because it doesn't matter how out of synch a child's development is, because you simply work at the level they're at in each discipline.)


  3. Is that why your daughter failed at chess Webb she just could not hack it? and i checked with all the records i have and i still can not find a chess grade from your daughter yet you claim she played chess at won? All serious games of chess are graded and recorded but your daughter has none?

  4. Come on Simon. You need to check mate and see what's happened to her results. Don't just end up a pawn in his game.

    1. His daughter never got an English chess federation chess grade i can find no record of her ever playing a serious graded chess game why?
      Cat how did you explain the visits to the casualty department with the kids?

    2. Not sure how we got from a couple of bad chess puns to accusations of harming my children? But the last times were finger trapped in a door an injured arm from falling off a bike and a hockey injury to a toe. Simply gave them my real details and had no problems.