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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Carwyn Jones is preparing for a fight with the UK government

From Labour's soft-nationalist wing, Jones has thought carefully about constitutional politics. 

This week's 20th anniversary of the 1997 Yes vote on devolution in Wales was a rather low-key affair. But then while there are plenty of countries around the world that celebrate an Independence Day, few nations or regions around the world would make much fuss about "Partial Autonomy Day".

The most important single event of the day was, almost certainly, the address by First Minister Carwyn Jones at the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ 20th anniversary conference. The sometimes diffident-seeming Welsh Labour leader has rarely been on stronger form. Much of his speech was predictable: there were his own recollections of the 1997 referendum; some generous reflections on the legacy of his now-departed predecessor, Rhodri Morgan; and a lengthy list of identified achievement of devolved government in Wales. But two other features stood out.

One, which might have struck any observers from outside Wales was the strongly Welsh nationalistic tone of the speech. In truth this has long been typical for Jones, and was a very prominent element of the successful Labour general election campaign in Wales. A fluent Welsh-speaker and long a part of the soft-nationalist wing of Welsh Labour, the First Minister briefly considered what would have been the consequences of the achingly-close 1997 ballot having gone the other way. Wales, we were told, would no longer have had the right to be considered a nation – it might even (gasp!) have lost the right to have its own national football team. But this theme of the speech was also linked to devolution: why should Wales not have parity of treatment on devolved matters with Scotland?

The most striking feature of the speech, however, was the confidence and combativeness with which the First Minister set about attacking the UK government on constitutional matters. This territory has often appeared to be the area which most animates Jones, and on which he is most comfortable. He has clearly thought a great deal about how to protect and develop the constitutional status of devolved Wales. The First Minister was clearly deeply unimpressed by the UK government’s handling of Brexit as a whole, and he linked Brexit to broader problems with the UK government’s approach to the constitution. Brexit was declared in the speech to be the "biggest threat to devolution since its inception" – and the audience were left in no doubt as to where the blame for that lay. Jones was also clearly very comfortable defending the joint stance he has taken with the Scottish National Party First Minister of Scotland, in opposing the EU Withdrawal Bill and much of the UK government’s approach to Brexit negotiations. This high level Labour-SNP cooperation – extraordinary, given the otherwise utterly toxic relations between the two parties – was argued to be the necessary consequence of the UK government’s approach, and the threat of a power-grab by Westminster of powers that are currently devolved. 

Finally, the First Minister had one new card up his sleeve. He was able to announce a Commission on Justice in Wales, to be chaired by a figure of impeccable authority: the soon-to-retire Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, John Thomas. The clear intention of the Welsh government seems to be to use this commission to advance their agenda of a distinct Welsh legal jurisdiction. This is another matter on which there appears to be little current common ground with the UK government.

Carwyn Jones emerged from the general election as a greatly strengthened figure: having led the Labour campaign in Wales when it appeared that the party might be in difficulty, he deservedly accrued much political capital from Welsh Labour’s success in June. The First Minister has been thinking imaginatively about the UK constitution for some years. But for a long time he failed even to carry much of the Welsh Labour party with him. However, he succeeded in having many of his ideas incorporated into the Labour UK manifesto for June’s election; he is no longer a voice crying out in the wilderness. On the anniversary of devolution, Jones said little that was wholly new. But the combination of everything that he said, and the tone and confidence with which he said it, was striking. This was not the speech of a man looking to back away from a confrontation with the UK government. Wales seems up for a fight.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.