Inspiration in schools beyond the Great Grade Grab

A teacher outlines the practical difficulties of improving sport in schools.

As the euphoria of London 2012 dissipates, the country's focus has shifted to legacy and to the furtherance of that considered strapline: "inspire a generation". Despite the potential for the whole nation to have been inspired by the incredible scenes of achievement and public commitment, it is natural to hear this phrase and think of the impact of the Games on the next generation. Such thought instinctively leads to questions about provision and very quickly we find ourselves on that well-worn path, the one which begins with an issue and ends with disparaging looks at our state school system.

So it seems we are here again. The school system, and the teachers that build it, are being spurred by yet more emotive political diatribes from those who know; but what do they know? There is little I find more uncomfortable than a politician using individual experience to analyse education holistically, perhaps only more so a politician discussing sport. So you can imagine how I winced at Cameron’s assertion that teachers are not giving enough of their time to school sport or Boris’s suggestion that two hours of exercise a day should be mandatory. It is not that they are necessarily wrong, just inconsistent and ill-considered in their approach. It is easy for Cameron to criticise teachers verbally for not participating in extra-curricular activities – a typically vacuous, faux-man-of-the-people sound-bite – but actions are harder than words. In fact, the comment is blind to the harsh reality of our state school system, a blindness I shared before leaving the City and spending the past year training as a Mathematics teacher. 

Eager to embrace all aspects of school life and equip my pupils with skills outside of the classroom, I was keen to help coach sport during lunchtimes or after school during my PGCE placements. Yet what I envisaged did not match reality. Instead I found PE departments isolated from the rest of the school, hidden from the frenzy of the core-subject-get-me-a-grade-C rush. School senior management, much like politicians, were happy to use favourable sporting results to their advantage but a thousand other pressures meant that sport was pushed to the outermost recesses of their agenda. In fact, the majority of my teaching colleagues advised me not to offer any assistance, viewing it as an ineffective use of time and one particular head of department went so far as actively to discourage it.

Yet this is not to lambast the attitude of teachers; their advice was considered, and although depressing it was designed to make me succeed within the parameters of the current schooling system. State school priorities are so aggressively geared towards achieving benchmark results that it is unsurprising that sport is an after-thought. Far from teachers sharing in the panoply of school life, subject-specific departments act like distinct entities, working frantically and individually to keep their own house in order. Years of governmental scrutiny and review have led to schools being appraised through statistical expectation, altering the dynamic of our education system. Somewhat perversely, I found the school environment distinctly more corporate than the investment bank in which I had previously worked: irrelevant staff-training, convoluted layers of management and endless paper-trails, seemingly created solely to appease an inspector's eye. It is as though those in charge had been reading Management-101 straight from 80s corporate America, complete with the de rigueur motto and mission statement. 

While such a rigorous infrastructure surrounding the profession could arguably engender increased professionalism, I feel it moves schools further from the true essence of teaching. So much pressure is placed on departments to meet GCSE grade targets that any staff spare-time is given over to the endless pursuit of improving results, and in particular the movement of Grade D's to Grade C's. As a result, any teacher’s involvement in other activities can be seen as shirking responsibilities. As an outsider looking in, the status quo is clearly not right. The working balance of teachers has been skewed to such an extent that the job seems to be a Sisyphean task of pushing statistics up a summitless hill. Whilst a plethora of interests and additional skills exist within the profession, such a system straight-jackets teachers into uniform conformity.

So how can the balance be readdressed? How can teachers be encouraged to lead activities and initiatives away from the Great Grade Grab? This is where David Cameron can actually help. Trust needs to return to the schooling system at every level. Government needs to allow school management space to breathe, to trust that this freedom will lead more effective leadership, focused on pupil development instead of lurching to and fro trying to fulfil the latest DfE edict. School management needs to trust departments and teachers. Teaching children is exhausting and fraught with complications that cannot always be explained by statistics. Rather than create a culture of after-school revision classes, the allocated lesson time should be viewed as sufficient, giving greater freedom for teachers to give more of their true selves to schools. Parents need to trust in this more rounded vision of school that improves pupil autonomy, removing the notion that a teacher is an unlimited resource to exploit as exam-stress looms. 

In the final placement of my teacher training course I worked in the only school in a working class town. Despite strong and motivated staff, the absence of choice for pupils meant the school struggled against being viewed as a five-year prison sentence. Results had recently improved and money had been spent to improve facilities but this was irrelevant in the classrooms. The children were not proud of their school and felt unlucky to be on its register. Sport at the school was not a priority and consequently few competitive fixtures were played, let alone won. It struck me that the school was missing a trick. 

Irrespective of teaching, results would always struggle to rise above those of the more affluent local schools. Furthermore what child would care whether 52 per cent rather than 49 per cent of GCSE pupils gained at least five grade Cs? No, that does not change the mood of a population. We do not celebrate if GDP has risen 0.2 per cent quarter on quarter. Yet think what delight we take from a taekwondo gold or a pommel horse silver. We like being associated with winners even if we do not necessarily understand what we have won. The power of human achievement to transform is enormous. If instead this school focused more broadly on success and its sports teams started winning, then maybe motivation would turn and morale lift. Paradoxically, less effort on results could actually lead to their improvement. 

I believe schools should adopt a flatter, more flexible management structure that embraces achievement alongside core responsibilities. At all levels trust is required to build unquantifiable skills in pupils, skills that fuel passions, create dreams and act as inspiration for the future. Yet this vision requires a fundamental structural shift. The current stasis needs breaking and the balance of power readdressing. Maybe the legacy of these Games will allow schools to free themselves from the stranglehold of results as sport steals some of this focus. More probably, the next in a seemingly endless line of society's ills will be blamed on state school under-performance and teachers will retreat further behind the cover of statistics. So, Dave, the Olympians have inspired a generation, now it's your turn.

Local school children taking part in football coaching at Staines FC. Photograph: Getty Images
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Scottish voters don't want hard Brexit - and they have a say in the future too

Leaving the single market is predicted to cost Scottish workers £2,000 a year,

After months of dithering, delaying and little more than scribbled notes in Downing Street we now know what Theresa May’s vision for a hard Brexit looks like. It is the clearest sign yet of just how far the Tories are willing to go to ignore the democratic will of the people of Scotland.  
 
The Tories want to take Scotland out of the single market - a market eight times bigger than the UK’s alone - which will cost Scotland 80,000 jobs and cut wages by £2,000 a year, according to the Fraser of Allander Institute.
 
And losing our place in the single market will not only affect Scotland's jobs but future investment too.
 
For example, retaining membership of, and tariff-free access to, the single market is crucial to sustainability and growth in Scotland’s rural economy.  Reverting to World Trade Organisation terms would open sections of our agricultural sector, such as cattle and sheep, up to significant risk. This is because we produce at prices above the world market price but are protected by the EU customs area.
 
The SNP raised the future of Scotland’s rural economy in the House of Commons yesterday as part of our Opposition Day Debate - not opposition for opposition’s sake, as the Prime Minister might say, but holding the UK Government to account on behalf of people living in Scotland.
 
The Prime Minister promised to share the UK Government’s Brexit proposals with Parliament so that MPs would have an opportunity to examine and debate them. But apparently we are to make do with reading about her 12-point plan in the national press.  This is unacceptable. Theresa May must ensure MPs have sufficient time to properly scrutinise these proposals.
 
It is welcome that Parliament will have a vote on the final Brexit dea,l but the Prime Minister has failed to provide clarity on how the voices of the devolved administrations will be represented in that vote.  To deny the elected representatives of the devolved nations a vote on the proposals, while giving one to the hundreds of unelected Lords and Ladies, highlights even further the democratic deficit Scotland faces at Westminster.  
 
The Scottish government is the only government to the UK to publish a comprehensive plan to keep Scotland in the single market - even if the rest of the UK leaves.
 
While the Prime Minister said she is willing to cooperate with devolved administrations, if she is arbitrarily ruling out membership of the single market, she is ignoring a key Scottish government priority.  Hardly the respect you might expect Scotland as an “equal partner” to receive. 
 
Scotland did not vote for these proposals - the UK government is playing to the tune of the hard-right of the Tory party, and it is no surprise to see that yesterday’s speech has delighted those on the far-right.
 
If the Tories insist on imposing a hard Brexit and refuse to listen to Scotland’s clear wishes, then the people of Scotland have the right to consider what sort of future they want.
 
SNP MPs will ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard at Westminster and do everything in our power to ensure that Scotland is protected from the Tory hard Brexit. 

 

Angus Robertson is the SNP MP for Moray, the SNP depute leader and Westminster group leader.