Bridge, chess, debating, maths, science are the new frontier in inter-school competition. Success in academic competition demonstrates a school’s commitment to academic excellence.
I think it’s fair to say that few parents list “success in an academic competition” as a significant factor when deciding between schools.
I suppose the ultimate academic competition is exam results; GCSEs, SATS, A Levels, entrance exams. But taking an exam doesn’t inspire interests and hobbies. And exams are not what this article is about. This article is about schools competing with each other on academic subjects and pursuits. Just as they might compete in sport.
A school that participates in an academic competition is certainly trying to make academic subjects more interesting. They are showing that they will take different approaches to help pupils engage and learn. I wonder how popular football would be if pupils just learned ball control and passing without playing competitive matches. Could the same be true of maths, science, history or critical thinking?
But the reality is that school involvement in academic competition is very low. The average primary school participates in 2 or 3 per year with 5 or 6 other local schools. Compare that to participation in an average of 20 sporting competitions. For secondary schools the ratios are similar; 12-15 academic competitions, 120+ sporting competitions. Which suggests that the potential to expand participation in academic competition is enormous. Especially in situations where access to sporting facilities aren’t easy. Indeed, there are schools who define their competitive prowess by success in bridge, chess, debating and maths competitions.
Hobbies as academic competition
Excelling in an academic competition demonstrates strength and flexibility in the school’s teaching. It also reflects on the school’s participation policy. When the competitions are team based they offer the same experience of joint enterprise and teamwork as any sport. It’s just that the exertion is mental rather than physical. Offering the opportunity for the non-sporty to represent the school and excel is a laudable aim. But that would be to stereotype academic teams as geeky and non-sporty. Which would be as valid as characterising the rugby team as meatheads.
The most popular academic competitions are general knowledge quizzes (think University Challenge format), chess and debating. Over 1500 school teams and 300,000 children participate in the Quiz Club National General Knowledge Championships which must make it one of the most popular of all national competitions. School competitions for chess and debating are far fewer, and currently more geared to senior school pupils. Which is a shame, since they are invaluable for developing skills in critical thinking, strategy, and, for debating, public speaking. There are no national school competitions for other useful board games such as Scrabble or backgammon. An opportunity there, maybe.
Curriculum subjects as academic competition
There are four main types of organisation that organise or sponsor academic subject competitions; corporate, universities, special interest academic societies and charities. Each has their own motivations for doing so but share the aim of encouraging more pupils to engage with the subject.
The higher profile competitions tend to involve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths). Competitions range from designing posters and classroom displays to problem solving DT, environmental or energy issues. In other words, cross subject topics that fit into any broad curriculum. Examples include the Ultimate STEM Challenge, Better Energy School Awards, Imperial College’s Schools Science Competition, Greenpower Education Trust’s car racing and a range of competitions from STEM Learning. There are also straight maths competitions such as The Primary Maths Challenge or those organised by the UK Mathematics Trust. Not forgetting computing, where there is a range of competitions from animation to coding to computer science. For example, the University of Manchester’s animation competition and the PA Raspberry Pi competition for computing innovation.
There are competitions for any subject you care to think of. The more esoteric, the more likely they are to be sponsored by a special interest academic society. And, the more likely they are to be individual, essay or PowerPoint based. For example, I presume not many teachers are aware of the British Society for the History of Mathematics’ two annual competitions for school age children. Or uTalk’s Junior Language Challenge. Or the Historical Society’s twenty or so competitions.
Is success in academic competition important?
As with sports and arts competition, success and participation communicate different things. Sustained success show’s that the school is actively pursuing academic excellence. Participation in academic competition shows a school’s commitment both to enlivening the academic curriculum and applying knowledge to problem solving. As a result, pupils pick up a few thinking and communication skills along the way. That sounds to me like the purpose of a broad curriculum.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the number of competitions, and participation in them, increases dramatically over the coming years.