The Olympic Legacy: excellence with participation

There is something peculiarly British about how we celebrate success.   We spent much of the time prior to the Olympics preoccupied with apparent failings in the security systems, assuming in some quarters that the Government had not planned for such eventualities.   Then came the opening ceremony, with its much-heralded ‘limited’ budget, in Beijing terms at least, which commentators had to admit was a great success, and of course quintessentially British to boot.   And once the games had started, there were the days without medals and the dire predictions of doom and gloom.   And finally, when the medals eventually came by the bucket full, they came in the wrong buckets.   How was it, Lord Moynihan declared, that so many medal winners were educated at independent schools?   This could not be right, and in true British fashion, the blame was pointed at those who had achieved success on the world stage, and not those responsible for its delivery.

Thankfully, for some at least, in week two the state school educated medal winners emerged from the woodwork, and of the 65 gold, silver and bronze successes the proportion from the independent sector had dropped from the Beijing high of 50% to a more respectable 38%.   If only it could have been lower the commentators said, but short of a few post-games disqualifications, or a recalibration of the Olympic clocks, it looks like we are stuck with 38%.   But is it really that bad?   Should we be shocked that independent schools deliver more medallists at major championships, and more international representatives in a wide variety of sports, than their 7% proportion of the school population should justify?

The best schools, whether state or independent, continue to invest in high quality co-curricular programmes.   These activities are not centred on the elite few, but on participation by the many.   On a typical Saturday in the vast majority of independent schools hundreds of children are engaged in a wide variety of team and individual sports.   For many it would be disappointing if more than half of the school population was not involved in some shape or form.   And such participation levels are not about coercion.   Far from it, these schools have set their goals on expectation, the expectation that children will want to take part and that they will be encouraged to do so.   Gone are the days of long cross country runs and cold showers, instead to be replaced by high quality sports with the benefits of excellent facilities and top quality coaching.

In the very best schools, participation in sporting activity is closely linked to programmes of personal development and general well-being.   A willingness to participate in physical activity and team enterprises is seen as an essential component of every child’s development.   Once again the focus is on expectation, not coercion.   But does this mean that the elite sportsmen and women in our schools are being neglected: prizes for the many at the expense of the exceptional few?   In recent years a number of our top sports governing bodies has embarked upon programmes designed specifically to identify and develop the few that will ultimately represent team GB at the next Olympics, or England at the next world cup.   In so doing they have come into direct conflict with schools where participation and a sense of belonging to a team take centre stage.   Is it right that boys and girls should have to decide between whether to play for a school team or attend an elite training camp run by GB sport?   Decisions that could remove them from school competition indefinitely or conversely block the path to Olympic glory?

Thankfully most sports governing bodies have pulled back from such an extreme position.   Instead they have come to value the quality of school sport and the contribution that coaches and school structures can make to the health of GB sport in general.   Bodies such as the RFU and ECB have come to recognise that many independent and state schools employ a significant number of former professional sportsmen and women as coaches and teachers; men and women who maintain close links with local clubs and national governing bodies.   Rather than remove the potential elite athletes from schools these more enlightened groups have decided to work closely with schools to consider whole-player development.   Such initiatives have not only supported school sport but have also breathed new life into local clubs.    Furthermore, through partnerships with other local schools, talented individuals in schools that lack the expertise and resources have been identified and nurtured, with raised expectations and opportunities to perform and develop.

Back in the early 1980s, when many of our current stock of fifty-something teachers were starting their careers, a teacher’s role was defined not only in terms of what they could deliver in the classroom, but also what they could offer in extracurricular fields.   With the focus on raising standards of numeracy and literacy, and that other arms race of league and performance tables, those days are long gone.   Much of our current teaching force has been recruited to deliver in the classroom and there is no going back to the days when school sport was delivered by many to more than simply an elite few.   School sport is now the preserve of specialists; high quality professionals in their own right, but professionals hamstrung by limited resources and, most crucially, limited time.   The last government’s target of two hours of sport or PE per week sounds laudable, but in reality it was never going to be enough.

No, the Olympic legacy will not be a return to the days when teachers spent almost as much time on the games field as they did in the classroom.   We need our best teachers in the classroom raising levels of attainment and setting high academic aspirations for all.   But we also need to raise participation rates and expectations in the field of sport.   There is some irony that at a time when our elite athletes have surpassed even their highest expectations in terms of Olympic achievement, our nation as a whole has never been more unhealthy and less fit.   Have we sacrificed the health of the nation for a record haul of Olympic medals?

So what could or should the Olympic legacy be?   Surely, if the Olympic legacy cannot deliver greater participation in sport, and as a consequence a healthier nation, then London 2012 will have achieved very little.   To do this we do indeed need to look again at how sport for the many is being delivered in our best schools, whether independent or state.  

These schools provide three things: time, expertise and resources.   Of these three, the first is perhaps the easiest to address.   It cannot be right that over the past thirty years the length of the school day for the vast majority of young people has decreased significantly.   It cannot be right that at a time when more and more parents are working, and working longer hours, the school day ends at some time between 2.30 and 4.00 p.m.   This represents not only a waste of talent, but also a waste of the school’s resources.

The second, expertise, is probably the greatest challenge of all.   We cannot turn to classroom teachers to deliver large-scale sports programmes.   Yes, some will have the expertise and the enthusiasm to do so, and this needs encouragement, but for many this is not why they entered the profession.   We need external expertise, and we have it in abundance, but we have to be prepared to make the investment, both in terms of resources and time.   Many of the nation’s schools have the facilities, but not the time, and it is time, with the necessary expertise, that will make the difference.   High quality, extensive after-school provision of sports and activities for all must be the priority of the Olympic legacy, making best use of resources that already exist in many of our schools.

A recent initiative launched by the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) to enable professional players to gain coaching qualifications and thereby facilitate future careers coaching and teaching in schools is a model for all sports.   However, such enterprise will only be successful if the time and resources are made available in all of our schools, and that requires a complete re-think of the school day and the expectations placed on our pupils.   Our best schools have already demonstrated that this achievable; what is now needed is a government with a commitment to drive through a change in attitude and with it a change in expectation.   Our pupils should expect more of school sport, and we in turn should expect more of them.   However, without the time or an investment in expertise there is little chance that team GB as a nation will be any faster, higher or stronger come Rio 2016.

Ian Power, Membership Secretary, HMC