Paul Vallely: The scar of coming last in an egg-and-spoon race

As children we sense early on our own uniqueness. That's what makes those early defeats so painful
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The Independent Online

Do you remember those sad characters at school who were always the last to be picked when it came to choosing football teams? Step forward yours truly. Or backwards, to be more accurate, since it always meant I ended up in goal - my contemporaries at St Francis Primary School were unaware that Jean-Paul Sartre, philosopher and goalkeeper, had by then endowed the position with an ontological status. Faced with the existential choice between philosophy and the goalmouth I eventually quit the football field. If only I'd known then what I know now. I might even have looked quite fetching braided like Beckham.

Which is why I was intrigued by the school in Sutton Coldfield that is scrapping traditional events such as races (sack, three-legged and obstacle) from its sports day this year. Instead they are opting for a new "activity-based" concept. Moreover they have banned parents from the event, reportedly to spare the children who don't win from being embarrassed by their failure, though it may be to hide the red faces of the staff if an egalitarian sports day turns out not to be a winner.

They shouldn't worry. The rules for this kind of thing were set out long ago by the Dodo in Alice In Wonderland, who first marked out a race course, in a sort of circle. ("The exact shape doesn't matter," it said.) Next everyone was placed along the course, here and there, and began running when they liked, and left off when they liked. And when they had been running half an hour or so the Dodo suddenly called out: "The race is over!" Asked who was the winner, the extinct bird replied: "Everybody has won, and all must have prizes."

Apparently some of the Sutton Coldfield parents are less than impressed. "Children don't become scarred for life because they lose the egg-and-spoon race," one has been quoted as saying. If only it were as simple. Being relegated to the goalmouth (goalies were never heroes in my schooldays) didn't, I learnt, matter so long as your peers held you in esteem for something else - being the class comedian, entrepreneur, hardman or the one who asks the teacher the provocative questions that divert her from the task in hand. The problem comes when being last in the egg-and-spoon is only the final ignominy in a long litany of failure.

As children we sense from the beginning our own uniqueness. That's what makes those early defeats so painful. "I'm 11 already and I haven't had a statue put up to me yet," as Just William put it in a first hint of the frustrated self-awareness that is one of the burdens of adulthood.

From early on there is a mutual interdependence between confidence and success. There is something ineffably sad when you see the light go out of the eyes of a child who has failed to achieve something - "weaving the experience", as one parent once put it, "into their view of the perfection of life, revising things downwards, so that by the time we reach adulthood, we don't expect too much of life, and so can't be surprised by disappointment". Failure can make us retreat into the security of being mediocre, lowering our ambitions to match our lowered sense of self-confidence.

Good teachers are those who forget how easy their chosen subject was for them, and can project themselves into the shoes of those who find it difficult. Or who harness the same persistence to a search to find something - anything - that the class duffer is animated by. A teacher-friend once told me a moving story about how a child whom everyone, teachers and pupils, assumed to be an all-round incompetent was discovered to be the UK champion breeder for a particular type of tropical fish.

A campaign was launched yesterday to abolish the compulsory standard assessment tests (Sats) for seven-year-olds, on the ground that the exams put young children under undue pressure, rendering them "disillusioned, demotivated and disaffected", causing considerable stress and hindering rather than helping their education. The irony is that many of the schools that do best in the Sats at seven are not those that spend months preparing for the tests but those that slip them into the school's normal day so that children are unaware they have been tested.

There is a paradox here. Failure in key areas of life can prompt children to withdraw their sense of engagement from everything. Yet children who don't take part in anything never discover what they're good at.

Maybe group problem-solving exercises at the school sports day are not such a dumb idea. After all, businesses spend tens of thousands of pounds on such activities to bond their teams of executives. They ought to work in schools, too. But we need them as well as, not instead of, the fun of the traditional egg-and-spoon race. That way there's a chance of every child finding out what it is they can be good at.