Competition vs Excellence in Schools

One of my favourite commentators is back on his hobby horse again this morning. I am referring to Dr Kevin Donnelly’s piece Give academic excellence in state schools a sporting chance in The Age this morning.
Dr Donnelly opines that

“Competition and excellence in sport is acceptable; unfortunately, the same incentive for academically able students is sadly lacking [in Victoria].”

One of the consistent fallacies in Donelly’s diatribes is the equation of competition and excellence. (He also likes to measure excellence on a single measure – graded assessment – and deny the opportunity for excellence to all but a small percentage of students who fit the academic mould.)
Rather than promoting absolute excellence, competition in academic endeavour almost always discourages it.


I like to think about the Space Shuttle. There was an element of competition in the program to build the Shuttle and sometimes this gave the incentive to the various teams to do their absolute best. Too often though, it lead them to cut corners in order to be there fastest at lowest cost. By far the most successful component of the program was co-operation within and between teams. Without co-operation there would have been no Shuttle.
Why is it then, when we come to education, that we think only in terms of competition and not co-operation?
There was a move towards co-operative learning in the mid to late 80s, along with similar ttrends towards equity and inclusiveness in schools. Sadly, in sync with most social issues, the pendulum has swung the other way.
In most current educational systems at the top end of secondary schooling students, rather than being encouraged to be the absolute best they can, are instructed to employ techniques to maximise their ENTER (the Australian Equivalent National Tertiary Entrance Ranking) score.
“If it’s not on the exam, don’t attempt to learn it” and “If it’s not going to help you get a better mark, then don’t do it” become the maxims. In Victoria, the common advice to prospective Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) students is to take the subjects that will give you the best chance of a high ENTER regardless of which areas of study you may excel. The current incarnation of the VCE has become, like the Higher School Certificate before it, a system for scrambling over your peers to get into the prestigious university courses. Excellence and breadth in learning fade into the background.
The ENTER, as its name suggests, provides a ranking of students from highest achiever to lowest acheiver in statistically moderated graded, largely exam based, assessments. Leaving aside the question of what these assessments actually measure (ie are they really designed to measure learning or are they there to provide the easiest and most consistent method for ranking students for university entrance?) students never get to find out how well they actually performed. They find our their moderated result, but, in sporting terms, they never get to see the judge’s score.
Even the ENTER is self limiting. In Victoria the maximum theoretical ENTER is 99.95. Several students each year achieve this “perfect” score. Who is to say they are equal? Maybe one or some of them are way way ahead of the others. There is no way of telling and, after all, who really cares. The ENTER is about University entrance. The Universities are happy if they have a few students on this score. It will satisfy their requirement to distinguish between students who should be admitted to courses and those who should not.
The point is there is no incentive, or opportunity, for a student to do better than this. Maybe there are some students who can “cruise” to 99.95. To allow them to do so is not promoting excellence. It promotes mediocrity.
Yes, I agree with you Dr Donelly, “The Victorian Certificate of Education, in its original form was intended to promote greater equity and social justice by reducing the emphasis on competitive graded assessment.” (Although you say this as though achieving greater equity and social justice are trite goals.) Yes one of the goals was to provide a broader certificate in which a greater number of students could meaningfully engage. It was also meant, Dr Donnelly to remove the restrictions on excellence placed by narrow competitive graded assessment. The designers, some of whom I knew personally, hoped that students could be encouraged to and actually show everything they were capable of. Those who are seriously challenged and see the benefit of academic endeavour could fly as high as they were capable.
Those who had capabilities and the inclination to perform in other ways could also excel in their endeavour.
From day one though, Dr Donell and others attacked this concept and worked tirelessly to restrict the benefits of a higher secondary education to a select few. Equity has always been promoted in principle rather than practice by his side of politics. Rather we have a privleged class at the expense of the vast majority rather than strive for excellence for all.

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