Goolbai Gunasekara believes ultra-competitiveness isn’t good

As I write this at the beginning of the New Year, the local A-Level results have been announced. Several students were highlighted for their brilliant performances – and of course, they deserve to be congratulated.

A boy from Ananda College spoke movingly about the sacrifices made by his parents, and I was most impressed by the confidence and style of a student from Devi Balika Vidyalaya. These are students of whom to be proud.

But I don’t have the same admiration for those Grade 5 top performers who have obviously spent much time studying madly. I’m against the examination system in general for young children and have always felt that competitive exams don’t bring out the best in youngsters.

All this cutthroat competition is appalling and its effects on children are disastrous. ‘Healthy competition’ is a popular phrase; but healthy for whom? That’s the question!

Certainly, it’s not in the best interests of a child to be subjected to the daily stress and trauma of what adults regard as healthy competition.

The problem lies with parents since they’re the competitive ones in a family. Children are rarely competitive. Parents often live vicariously through their children, and when the youngsters fail to live up to the hopes and ambitions of the parents, anger, turmoil and blame are laid unfairly on the child or his or her school.

A long time ago, I had a teacher in school with an exceptionally bright child. Another staff member also had a child in the same class but she was an average student though she excelled in sport. Every time a test was held, the mother of the clever student would pointedly ask how the other children fared. Her competitive attitude was irritating to the staff but the one who suffered most was her own child.

This mother monitored everything from tests to her choice of A-Level subjects. The child would have had a superb academic career in arts subjects but her ambitious mother insisted on her doing science. Being clever, the student gained nine As at the O-Level exam… but then began the inevitable down slide.

At the A-Level exam, she obtained one A and three Bs. A medical career was out of the question. She gained entry into a good university in the UK but finished her studies with only a basic degree in science. Today, she has two children and is a housewife.

On the other hand, the other child’s studies perked up once she entered university and took subjects that she was interested in. Today, she holds a Master’s Degree in Business from one of the best colleges in the US.

So how did this happen?

It’s a good example of an overambitious mother compared to one who let her child develop naturally.

This natural course of development is possible in private and international schools but in government schools, the competitive exams begin when the child is only 10 years. That Grade 5 exam is one of the most brain numbing exercises I can think of!

Those top performers study tirelessly and usually have tuition as well. Apart from the top performers, there are those a little below them who almost made it to the top. Their sense of failure can’t be measured. And yet, they are very smart children who should be allowed to develop at their own pace.

So this brings me to the much highlighted A-Level students who have topped their subjects at the recent exams. Are they equally sound in other departments of development such as Emotional Quotient (EQ) and Spiritual Quotient (SQ)?

Presumably, the IQs of these children are high. But how high are their EQs? Are they mature enough to face a life that asks more of them than reproducing memorised work?

Then there is a popular new development in many advanced countries that realises the importance of SQ. This is about maturity of ethical behaviour and beliefs, and has nothing to do with religion.

SQ is receiving much impetus under Dr. Tara de Mel, who is spearheading a programme on mindfulness in schools where children begin the day with five minutes of guided meditation. I’m not too sure about the content of this programme but know it’s an excellent way to start our students off on a less competitive attitude to studies and work.

Aiding a new educational programme, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced his ideas for a change from previous syllabuses to the inclusion of subjects that are more attuned to global needs. One hopes there will be less emphasis on competition and more on attainment.

The Greeks loved study for its own sake and exam marks were not considered a true assessment of ability. A wide and varied education was given but regrettably, mostly to men. Competition was in sport and of course, war.

But I think we can assume that competition is not for the very young and I hope it will be not be encouraged in the education of youngsters in Sri Lanka.