Competition teaches children the most important lesson of them all: life isn't fair

If children no longer care about winning, then how will they learn to accept defeat?


I’ll never forget the day my mum sat me down and explained that life wasn’t fair, that my sister had trounced me at Snakes and Ladders, and that sometimes it wasn’t just the taking part that counted.

It was a difficult lesson to learn, in part because I attended a school which promoted fairness over competition. Every Rounders game was declared a draw in the interests of equality, rendering the frantic dashes from base to base essentially pointless.

According to a study by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and cricketing charity Chance to Shine, the “prizes for all” culture that has permeated British schools has left a generation of children uninterested in winning on the sports field. Some would rather competition was removed from sport altogether.

Getting rid of competitive sport is a dangerous game, however, as it risks leaving children unprepared for the gritty reality of day-to-day life, which often isn’t fair. When you miss out on a hotly contested job, there’s no prize for second place. When the boy you fancy doesn’t fancy you back, you don’t get a sticker for taking part.

I’m a fierce defender of state education, but this is one area in which the private sector has us beat. As former head teacher and chairman of the Campaign for Real Education Chris McGovern noted, our Olympic squad and cricket team are full of people who were privately educated.

Fee-paying schools wouldn’t dream of letting every pupil have a crack of the whip just to make things fair and instead encourage children to train, practise, or revise to ensure they triumph over their peers.

Yes, the attitude is a little bullish and often instills in students an underlying sense of self-worth not present in their state-educated counterparts, but it also teaches them that adult life is made up of competitions to be won or lost. Is it any wonder these kids populate our top universities, sports teams and high-flying jobs?

However, unlike a state-of-the-art computer lab or a school trip to New York, a healthy dose of rivalry is completely free, making it one element of paid-for education that the state sector can embrace.

Because while it’s all very well letting every child have a bite of the cherry, sooner or later they’ll realise that not all rounders matches end in a draw.

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