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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser