The anticipated ending of the Olympics has started a rash of speculation about the legacy and politicians are under pressure to demonstrate an enduring benefit beyond the obvious pleasure, excitement and inspiration the Olympics have brought to many citizens. Reading Graeme Archer in the Daily Telegraph and Matthew Parris in The Times as well as hearing the debate on the R4 Today Programme prompts me to reflect on the Olympics and the issue of sport in schools.
The header is a quote from one of my last school reports before I left. It always amuses me and I will return to why a little later.
First, on the Olympics, have I watched avidly? No, not really. I have never been gripped by athletics in general and the Olympics is of a standard so far above anything I can even understand that it doesn’t really excite me. I like the equestrian events, particularly the dressage and the sight of a dancing horse so clearly enjoying itself is truly inspiring. I have enjoyed seeing the excitement for the winners and the reward for so much punishing training. I am also thrilled that it has all worked so well; a real triumph for that unique British skill for the detail of ceremonial and large scale events.
Second, I despair that Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC has lectured his staff about not being too patriotic. For goodness sake, he is the DG of the British Broadcasting Corporation; what does he expect? However, he does live in Oxford so I suppose a left-of-centre, liberal and internationalist attitude is probably de rigeur.
Finally, I come to my main point. David Cameron has produced an instant policy requiring all children to participate in competitive sports. Now, I have a problem here; so does Graeme Archer in The Daily Telegraph and Matthew Parris in The Times. They seem to have had the same sort of experience at school that I had. I was a bookish and studious lad. I loved reading and learning and I did well in exams. The reverse was true in sports and in PE classes which I dreaded.
I learned quite recently that my vision was one reason. One eye had long sight and the other short sight so my brain never really knew where a cricket or tennis ball was and my muscles got confusing messages so that my foot rarely hit a football squarely and my cricket bat regularly swung a long way away from the ball at which it was aimed. For a young lad who was not good at sport and had no real interest in it, the weekly sports afternoon and PE lesson were torture.
The only ball game at which I excelled was Pool where I became a bit of a hustler in my youth!!
Back to competitive games …… I do think state schools have failed many children here. There has been a left-inspired, anti-competitive thrust that demanded every child should be a winner. This led to the abandonment of school leagues and certainly meant that games against public schools were off limits. If DC intends to counter this anti-competitive ethos in the state system, he has my full support. However, if he thinks he will improve the human condition by forcing bookish children – as I was – into competitive sports in which they have no interest and no skills, he will be adding to the sort of human misery to which I was subject, along with Graeme Archer and Matthew Parris.
A contributor to the R4 Today programme kept repeating the mantra that there are some skills that can only be learnt from competitive sports. I dispute this. I have learnt about team working, nurturing ambition and the value of preparation and training but not from competitive sports which brings me to my final point.
If the state school system has a real lesson to learn it is about the folly of placing equality at the top of the hierarchy of need. It is this pursuit of fairness through equality that has led to the dumbing down of our state schools and our examination system.
Humans have been competitive since the dawn of history. As hunter-gatherers, competition has preserved the fittest and, therefore, the human race. If schools have a lesson to learn, it has to be about harnessing the competitive spirit, not just in sports but in every aspect of learning. They need to help children to understand that they may not excel in every discipline but that every child has a God-given talent somewhere inside them. It is the challenge for every school and every school teacher to find this talent in each child and to help them to exploit it. Compulsion of children is not the answer; inspired school leadership is and that is where DC and his colleagues need to direct their attention.
Oh, I nearly forgot ….. how did I come to score well for the first eleven? Well, we all learn ways of avoiding tasks we would rather not undertake. Although I never disliked cricket and my parents paid for private coaching for a while, I could see I was wasting my time and their money. I therefore applied my mathematical skills to the art of acting as scorer for the top team. I enjoyed it and I must have done it well because my school report on sport changed from saying “this is not Keith’s strength” to “he has scored well for the first eleven”. I have treasured this little distortion of my sporting ability throughout my life but have never used it to secure an unfair advantage.