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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear