Bottom of the class
Competition in the classroom has two negative effects. As W. B. Curry of Dartington Hall School pointed out in the 1934 Modern Schools Handbook, for successful students it makes high marks more important than the interest of the subject being studied, and for unsuccessful students it means ever-increasing discouragement. And it is in fact not only the less able who are discouraged. Even for highly talented students competition can be discouraging. Instead of learning being a co-operative enterprise where everyone gains, it becomes a game where there is only one winner, and even those who come second have lost.
'But children are naturally competitive,' say supporters of the old system. Yes, they enjoy competition, but they also enjoy co-operation. There is room in education for both, but co-operation is the more important of the two, and old-fashioned competition, encouraged by staff who saw it as a motivator, motivated only a few. It may have driven the brightest students to work harder in order to come top of the class, but in that case even those bright students were distracted from the interest of the subject by their eagerness to win marks. In order to win better marks many of them cheated. Those who came halfway down the list were not particularly excited by the prospect of coming twelfth rather than fifteenth. Those at the bottom were totally discouraged.
Teachers who set up their pupils to compete with each other offer a practical demonstration of their own doubts about the interest and value of what they are teaching, and in doing so reduce the likelihood of their students finding anything of interest or value in what they are required to do.
It was generally thought, when the 1934 Modern Schools Handbook was published, that ordinary school work was so unappetising that in order to encourage children to study hard it was necessary to provide them with competition as a stimulus. The introduction of school league tables in English schools has revealed the even more extraordinary assumption that ordinary school work is so unappetising that it is necessary to provide the schools themselves with competition as a stimulus to encourage the teachers to work harder.
As well as showing an insulting lack of confidence in the commitment of teachers, this has unintended results: students who are plainly not going to achieve satisfactory exam results are ignored so that more attention can be given to those who just might improve the school's exam record, students who want to extend their studies beyond the set curriculum are prevented from doing so and occasional schools set a bad example by cheating (for instance, looking at the papers before the exams so they can be sure their students are properly prepared, or simply not entering their less able students to take the exams at all).
Secondary students are aware of this. Among the submissions to the ESSA Manifesto for Change competition (see link below), there is the specific complaint, 'They don't teach you the subject, they teach you to pass the exam.'
As long as the UK government persists in publishing league tables, this will continue. There is no room at all for the idea that the purpose of education is to help all students to find out, individually, what they want or need to know. Instead they absorb the notion that all that matters is to get good grades. Parents, too, lose interest in anything except good grades and reinforce the lesson the school is trying to teach. Children who are not going to get good grades learn that all they can do is to get by, and they do as little as possible.
Too many of the adults who emerge from this system perpetuate it. The successful go on looking for higher status and higher salaries and the unsuccessful go on doing just enough to get by. Both miss the honourable satisfaction of doing a job well because they see some purpose in it. Competition has taught them that winning is what matters; life is a race and most of them are going to lose.