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Competition in Education

Our education system is based on competitive principles - but should it be? This lecture examines some of the key arguments and their implications, before exploring alternatives to competition.

Rupert Higham

on 18 January 2016

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Transcript of Competition in Education

Competition in education
Rupert Higham, 18th Jan 2016
Types of competition
Education as
mirror of society

Education as a
tempering influence

Education as the basis
for democratic values

Beyond the self/society

Teachers use competition as a way to motivate students because it's intrinsically enjoyable - e.g. putting students into teams in a quiz
Esteem / Rank
Children are also motivated to earn or demonstrate their superior status with regard to activities they value, e.g.
winning prizes for academic performance
being (seen to be) top of the class
proving your ability in a sport or club
Causing the most disruption / hurt
Being the most desirable / cool
Material goods (shoes, jewellery, sports kit)
Competition for limited resources
Some things are limited or rationed in a way that promotes competition, such as:
Places on on A-level courses
University places
Positions in top sets
Positions in school sporting teams

We can define these as 'positional goods' as having them - or not having them - situates you within a hierarchy of value
Competition / cooperation
In counter to the claim that competition is inherently antagonistic and damaging, Prvulovich argues that cooperation and competiton work together in all societies. All competitive games have rules, for example, to which both sides adhere; in society also, rules goven competition in the marketplace. We thus cannot separate competition in order to condemn it.
'High minimum baseline'
White (1994) Argues that there is no moral case for egalitarianism (equality of outcomes), but only for education providing a 'high social minimum' of education that will allow individuals to flourish.

"Minimally, one needs adequate food, shelter,
clothing and good health. More than these, I would claim-and these are needs in our kind
of culture, not necessarily human needs in general-one needs a decent education, a
reasonable income, enjoyable work, friends and lovers, social recognition, and sustaining
virtues like confidence and practical wisdom."

(White 1994, p.175)
Limiting the marketplace
Evidence from sociology
Renegotiating self/other

Jonathan, R (1997) Illusory Freedom: Liberalism, Education and the Market, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 31:1
Pruvolovich, R (1982) In Defence of Competition, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 16:1
Sandel, M. J. (2012). What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets. London: Macmillan.
White, J (1994) The Dishwasher's Child: education and the end of egalitarianism, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 28:2
Wilkinson, R and Pickett, K (2010) The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, London: Penguin
Argument from biology:
Whatever gifts and abilities, talents and potentials we have - they are ours. They make us what we are and there is nothing immoral in utilising these gifts, and even benefitting from them, be it physical strength, intelligence, courage, academic ability, athletic prowess or whatever. These differences are not so much social or environmental; they are genetic facts and as such irrefutable by any philosophical, political or ideological arguments.
(Prvulovich, 1982, p.86)
'Natural facts' aren't social facts. Humans build societies around moral codes that supercede biological factors
How we use our 'natural advantages' is also a choice. Need we use our running speed to beat others in races, or our maths ability to win competitions?
This largely rules out education as a significant factor in changing 'the field'
The idea of 'intelligence', for example, as a natural fact is highly questionable
Students can also challenge themselves to beat their best previous work - competition against oneself.
Sport and games are seen as another arena where competition is intrinsically 'healthy' - an extension of the play of early childhood as long as not taken to excess.
Fun / intrinsic motivation
Internal / external friendly competitions (sport / arts)
Agreed focus on collective improvement of targets
Local rivalry (friendly?)
Esteem / Rank
League tables: including grades, university entry, 'value added' and others
Ofsted rating (esp. in relation to local 'competitiors'
Intake / catchment (getting the 'best' students)
Competition between teachers for pay / advancement
Competition for limited resources
Performance-linked resources
Threat of change of management / closure
Changes of school status (academy, training school)
Private school considerations (prices, results, facilities, esteem)
Fun / motivation
National / international friendly competitions (sport / arts / commerce)
Agreed focus on collective improvement of targets (nationally / internationally)
National rivalry (friendly?)
Esteem / Rank
Within society
Prestigious jobs
Location of home / work
Friends / partners
Honours and status
Between societies
International indices of wealth, health, achievement
International prizes (sport, arts, culture)
Diplomatic rank
Competition for limited resources
Within society:
High value jobs
Material goods
Insider information
Between societies:
The 'international marketplace'
Financial treaties / trade agreements
Control of land and resources
Military might
Fun / motivation
Argument from society:
Competition is endemic in the structure of society, and schools must acknowledge and prepare students for this

...if a society of a kind which we are urged to create thrives on competition, surely there can be nothing very wrong with our schools (and other walks of life) if the competitive spirit is encouraged in them, rather than ridiculed and considered objectionable as a social ideal. (Prvulovich, 1982, p.80)
However regrettable, the fact is that the necessary means, which make it possible to become educated, are often inadequate or severely restricted. Consequently, some distributive devices are needed to decide on the best and most equitable distribution possible. All this necessitates some means of assessment and selection... Professor Dearden observed that “competition as a distributive device can be both the fairest”, because such competition is related to one’s abilities and merits, and “the most efficient”, because it chooses those most likely to benefit from it. (Prvulovich, 1982, p.81)
What is the definition of 'becoming educated' here for which resources are in short supply?
Might this argument implictly condone a poor education for many?
What are the skills or abilities that are being competitively assessed in this argument?
This argument makes an appeal to fairness. In what sense is competition between schools fair to the students who 'lose out'?
The argument that society thrives because of competition remains contentious. Does it imply a Darwinian justification that doesn't necessarily apply to the social realm?
Is school the appropriate time to expose students to competition? Are they ready?
To what extent is school supposed to be a mirror of society? A preparation for a known future, or for a the possibility of different societies with different possibilities?
Promoting standards
The need for standards:
We need doctors, lawyers, engineers etc to be of high quality to support a civilised society; competition for and within these professions raises and maintains their standards
Where's the logical and evidential link between A-level subject performance and suitability for professions?
There may be a conflation between standards within subject disciplines, within educational practice as a whole, assessed educational outcomes, and standards in professions and public life. The relationship between these is complex! In which ones is competition an important element?
The danger of 'levelling down':

Removing competition in education would lead to levelling down of the best performers to the level of the majority (Prvulovich, 1981, p.81)
This may be motivated by the desire of egalitarians to penalise the privileged rather than to benefit the less privileged (White 1994, p.178)
This is a strong argument based on the intrinsic motivational attributes of competition in education and elsewhere - but is this just a cultural habit rather than a universal truth? Might more cooperative approaches also succeed?
Might we not also counter White by questioning what is the inherent value of the elite performance of the privileged? Are they really benefitting society through their success in competition?
Limited resources
Personal achievement need not be comparative, such as in athletic competition. By using this metaphor for achievement, achievement is aligned with self-interest.
Selfishness is also equated with advancement for onself and one's family, and thus argued not to be morally wrong. What if your promotion of your own interests actively disadvantages others?
Valuing achievement
There is tremendous satisfaction in winning trophies and praise. There is pain in it, but also kudos and a sense of achievement, and this makes it desirable and worthwhile. Recent Olympic winners confirmed this amply...
It may well be selfish to provide for one’s family, to give one’s children the best education possible, to improve one’s qualifications, to get a better and more congenial job and so on, but to do this, though at times it may be unpleasant and even very difficult, is not morally wrong. (Prvulovich, 1982, p.80)
Competition for fun is harmless in school and wider society, but this need not be analogous with the 'marketplace' which governs material winners and losers.
Isn't this just an argument for the status quo? Just because competition is a structural feature of society now, it doesn't imply that it need be.
Might education be seen instead as a mechanism to promote cooperation over competition to limit its destructive effects?
White's argument is for more than a minimum 'safety net', but education of sufficient quality and quantity to enable 'autonomous flourishing (ibid., p.179)

Beyond this, he argues, there is no case for greater equality. Redistribution of wealth as a means to suport a high minimum baseline could be justified - but if it went further, what would it achieve, and how could one justify it?
Egalitarianism should be jettisoned, too, in education. It gets in the way of what educators should be doing - to help to provide the necessary educational conditions of autonomous well-being (just as health-care workers help to provide the medical conditions, or farmers and milkmen, the nutritional). To jettison egalitarianism is not to jettison the principle of ‘equal’ (i.e. universal) respect or consideration. As a central value in our whole ethical system, it will also play a key role in education. (White 1994, p.177)
Rational autonomy
Both White's and Prvulovich's positions are based on the notion of 'rational autonomy', derived originally from Kant.
This implies that there is a baseline for becoming rational and capable that education must help people to reach.
Once they reach this, people can and should act as free agents in the world.
What is the role of society in this model?
A rule-maker to govern competition
The provider of an education system that at least gives people a chance to compete
Is there really such a baseline?
How could you tell that someone had reached it and 'has a chance'?
Does meeting that baseline enable one to compete with the privileged on equal terms?
Still a marketplace?
... The climate of public debate today tends to represent and treat education on the one hand as a private consumer good, best produced and distributed by the mechanism of free market exchange... and on the other hand as the public site for the production of those skills thought exchangeable to advantage in the global market." (Jonathan 1997, p.2)
Jonathan's argument implies that:
The 'minimum baseline' inevitably views education as a precursor to engagement with the status quo of the competitive market
Focusing on individuality, in the form of rational autonomy, as the aim of education promotes this

by separating us from each other by default
Education becomes property of the individual - it becomes a 'transferrable good' for use elsewhere
Jonathan further argues:
Society is built on cultural practices and a social framework 'for enduring relationships, a political community of trustworthy institutions and conventions'
These require education to prepare students with the values to promote and uphold these valuable practices - which are held to be morally good
The marketplace - which is amoral and allows consumers to exercise their free choice of preferences, relies on these values in turn
The marketplace cannot be a model for education
Unique role of education
Education is the one social practice which both reflects and produces social circumstance and values. Moreover, it is the one 'public service' whose nature and purpose... is inevitably altered by changed mechanisms for its distribution and control. And in turn, with changes in the nature and purpose of education, we create changed parameters for the further evolution of value and circumstance. (Jonathan 1997, p.3)
Is this really not the case of the arts, justice system and other social practices?
If not, would it weaken the argument?

Which features of 'distribution and control' within UK schooling most shape young people's values?
Furthermore, the high value placed on 'elite performance' overlooks the fact that personal excellence requires cultural and material support.

Mozart would not have flourished without a society willing and able to nurture and value his talent (Jonathan 1997, p.132).
Couldn't this be taken as a justification for the creation of cultural elites that generate and value excellence?
Wouldn't it be enough that all have a chance to enter these?
Jonathan's argument implies that the 'high minimum baseline' is not adequate because:
The minimal standard of 'rational autonomy' does not allow for the development of society
It also implies that society is a marketplace, and thus that educational outputs become 'positional goods'
In such a system, those achieving the minimum baseline will still be at a disadvantage comapred to the privileged. There's no level playing field.
'The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone' (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009) argues that:
There is compelling statisitical evidence from developed countries that income inequality is strongly linked to poor outcomes in health, happiness, crime, trust and other areas
This is in societies where minimum standards for healthy living are largely or completely met by all
This is because clear inequality leads to diminished self-esteem which breeds destructive behaviours
The best off in inequal countries also suffer as a result
Do assess this case for yourself before accepting it. Read the reviews and critiques!
If this were broadly true, how would it change the moral case for competition in education and society?
What if the self and society were not diametrically opposed? If we define individuality in terms of a continuing process of social interactions:
Playful competition is still possible as a relational game
Rank and esteem become defined in relation to jointly negotiated values rather than objective standards
Limited resources remain a factor - but their value becomes related to what they contribute to the quality of relationships
Finally, in relation to education:
What is the resource that is genuinely limited? If the products of education are mental, how can they be?
If we disposed of the need for positional goods in education, what would we focus on instead?
How might we realise forms of education where preparation for competition for limited resources was not a determining factor?
Can education for a competitive marketplace engage with rapid global environmental degradation?
Does competition in education reflect what Michael Sandel (2012) calls 'a market economy' - or a 'market society'?
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