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The SACE is not a competition

Read about the dangers of the SACE being a competition between students.

About | Publications and media | Blog of the Chief Executive | The SACE is not a competition (April 2019) - part 2

The SACE is not a competition. Education is not a competition. Our post-industrial, globalised world, doesn’t care if a student is winning or losing in a test against their peers. What the world cares about is what that student knows and, more importantly, what they can do with what they know.  

The world cares if the student is good enough to meet the world’s expectations, whether they are up to the standard. That is how the world measures student success.

Setting the right standard is an ongoing and evolving challenge for education systems across the globe and in South Australia, we have an enormous opportunity to evolve and set a standard that doesn’t hold our students back from meeting the world’s expectations.

In some Australian states, the learning that goes on at senior secondary and the generation of an ATAR are so inextricably linked that they offer two certificates from which students must choose. One for students who are heading for university and one for those intending to continue with their vocational education and training or go straight into employment. In those states, people even talk about “competitive assessment” and consider the Year 12 exams to be an arena for students to battle it out against each other.

This is a mistake and is working against our students’ success.

New research led by Stanford University shows us that when students see education as a competition “ironically, success in gaining the upper hand against others in these pseudo-competitions led individuals to subsequently reduce their effort in their own pursuits.”

I suspect that most teachers already know that. This is not good for individual students and it is not good for South Australia. If our best and brightest are coasting because they know they are doing well in some kind of race, then that sets us up for future mediocrity. Our best young thinkers will be our future leaders and I want them to be brilliant, to be creative and agile thinkers who can develop solutions to yet unknown challenges and create new possibilities for all South Australians. I don’t care if they are the best in the year in a certain group of subjects that scale well for the ATAR. 

Research from around the world continues to show that the less students compare their performance to others, the more confident they are, even in basic capabilities such as reading and writing.

Knowledge and skills are important and in addition, young people need to be able to activate what they know in unfamiliar situations with flexibility and perseverance. They need to be able to learn on the job, whether they are being trained in new skills or actively learning without being taught, and they need to find their own way in an increasingly complex world. When skills have a half-life of five years they go out of date so quickly that being “skillable” is more important than ever. The world will judge our young people against this standard.

The standard is not just about knowledge and skills, it is about how you can use them in your life. Being able to take what you know and influence others, to work ethically, and to think a proposed solution to a problem all the way through to the end. That’s the standard. Demonstrating that you can harness diversity, make the most of technology, and have the entrepreneurial thinking to just get stuff done. That’s the standard.

We need to help our students grapple with their own educational goals to maximise the positive impact of their schooling on their lives. A student could be the best in the competition and still fail to live up to what is really expected of them. I have seen it time and again when I taught in universities here and in the UK.

If we define student success as doing better than someone else in a mythical competition then they and their teachers will feel pressure to play the game to win. Stay away from subjects which you might find difficult, “tick and flick” the Research Project, and learn for assessment rather than assess for learning.

The SACE is not a competition. It’s a standard. A standard that is shifting at the pace of change. 

Professor Martin Westwell
Chief Executive, SACE Board of South Australia


Huang, S.C., Lin, S.C. and Zhang, Y., 2019. When individual goal pursuit turns competitive: How we sabotage and coast. Journal of personality and social psychology.

Wehrens, M.J., Buunk, A.P., Lubbers, M.J., Dijkstra, P., Kuyper, H. and van der Werf, G.P., 2010. The relationship between affective response to social comparison and academic performance in high school. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 35(3), pp.203-214

Pulford, B.D., Woodward, B. and Taylor, E., 2018. Do social comparisons in academic settings relate to gender and academic self-confidence?. Social Psychology of Education, 21(3), pp.677-690.