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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Richard Dawkins: We need a new party - the European Party

I was unqualified to vote in the EU referendum. So at least now we should hear from experts. 

It is just conceivable that Brexit will eventually turn out to be a good thing. I gravely doubt it, but I’m not qualified to judge. And that is the point. I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history. It’s grotesque that David Cameron, with the squalidly parochial aim of silencing the Ukip-leaning wing of his party, gambled away our future and handed it over to a rabble of ignorant voters like me.

I voted – under protest, because I never should have been asked to vote, but I did. In line with the precautionary principle, I knew enough to understand that such a significant, complex and intricate change as Brexit would drive a clumsy bull through hundreds of delicate china shops painstakingly stocked up over decades of European co-operation: financial agreements, manufacturing partnerships, international scholarships, research grants, cultural and edu­cational exchanges.

I voted Remain, too, because, though ­ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and ­evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.

The single most shocking message conveyed during the referendum campaign was: “Don’t trust experts.” The British people are fed up with them, we were told. You, the voter, are the expert here. Despicable though the sentiment was, it unfortunately was true. Cameron made it true. By his unspeakable folly in calling the referendum, he promoted everyone to the rank of expert. You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.

Scientists are experts only in their own limited field. I can’t judge the details of physics papers in the journal Nature, but I know that they’ve been refereed rigorously by experts chosen by an expert editor. Scientists who lie about their research results (and regrettably there are a few) face the likelihood that they’ll be rumbled when their experiments are repeated. In the world of science, faking your data is the cardinal sin. Do so and you’ll be drummed out of the profession without mercy and for ever.

A politician who lies will theoretically get payback at the next election. The trouble with Brexit is that there is no next election. Brexit is for keeps. Everyone now knows that the £350m slogan on the Brexit bus was a barefaced lie, but it’s too late. Even if the liars lose their seats at the next election (and they probably won’t), Brexit still means Brexit, and Brexit is irreversible. Long after the old people who voted Leave are dead and forgotten, the young who couldn’t be bothered to vote and now regret it will be reaping the consequences.

A slender majority of the British people, on one particular day in June last year when the polls had been going up and down like a Yo-Yo, gave their ill-informed and actively misled opinion. They were not asked what they wanted to get into, only what they wanted to get out of. They might have thought “Take back control” meant “Give control back to our sovereign parliament, which will decide the details”. Yes, well, look how that’s working out!

“The British people have spoken” has become an article of zealous faith. Even to suggest that parliament should have a little bitty say in the details is hysterically condemned as heresy, defying “the people”. British politics has become toxic. There is poison in the air. We thought that we had grown out of xenophobic bigotry and nationalistic jingoism. Or, at least, we thought it had been tamed, shamed into shutting its oafish mouth. The Brexit vote signalled an immediate rise in attacks on decent, hard-working Poles and others. Bigots have been handed a new licence. Senior judges who upheld the law were damned as “enemies of the people” and physically threatened.

Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite. In the same way, to decide the affairs of state, as we live in a representative democracy, we can at least hope to elect elite parliamentarians, guided and advised by elite, highly educated civil servants. Not politicians who abdicate their democratic responsibility and hand important decisions over to people like me.

What is to be done? Labour, the so-called opposition, has caved in to the doctrine of “the British people have spoken”. Only the Lib Dems and SNP are left standing. Unfortunately, the Lib Dem brand is tarnished by association with Cameron in the coalition.

Any good PR expert would prescribe a big makeover, a change of name. The “Euro­pean Party” would attract Labour voters and Labour MPs disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn. The European Party would attract Europhile Tory MPs – and there are plenty of them. The European Party would attract a high proportion of the 48 per cent of us who voted Remain. The European Party would attract big donations. The European Party might not win the next election, but it would stand a better chance than Labour or the Lib Dems under their present name. And it would provide the proper opposition that we so sorely need.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition