Sunday, 12 August 2012

Olympics, education etc.

Like so many of the commentators on the Games I'm a reformed sceptic/cynic. What I wrote before -revealed a tinge of respect creeping into my jaundiced outlook: the torchbearer I eventually glimpsed after the long procession of sponsors’ buses and corporate cheerleaders looked like an ordinary decent salt-of-the-earth kid like so many I’d taught in schools in London, Devon and Yorkshire.

I've in the event been impressed and moved by all the things the commentators have: a superbly managed and creatively conceived spectacle, lovely people on all sides -- athletes, helpers, soldiers, audiences, boring sport becoming interesting for the first time. Even the national anthems, podiums, flag-raisings. (What a pity Wales wasn’t a country for Olympics purposes: then, if their athletes had then done their stuff, we could have had the best anthem of all. As it was we had to make do with the runner-up, Russia’s. Shame about the British one, of course.)

What I liked is that despite the oppressive business presence (Coca Cola, Samsung), the dominant feeling was inescapably non-corporate, non-accountancy-driven, non-managerial, non-PR/HR/government-speak and instead human, decent, warm. Plenty of ‘excellence’ (hated term) was in evidence, but also respect for and recognition of ordinary people and ordinary virtues, like solidarity, love of city and country and respect for honest effort as much as for ‘achievement’.

I liked it that so many of the athletes were people from ordinary or even disadvantaged backgrounds, and so many from unregarded parts of Britain like the North and Northern Ireland. Few seemed to from public schools or even from well-known schools -- even the gold medal canoeist, which you’d think an expensive sport, got there by drifting along to a local club after his day at an undistinguished provincial school. If the list of schools topping the examinations and Oxbridge entry league tables include almost none that aren’t in the south of England, those contributing Olympic athletes is another story.

British sport had been helped by two obvious things: immigration, obviously, and lottery money that had been spent wisely and to the benefit of the provinces, e.g. the way funding had been used to promote cycling and the athletics training centre in Sheffield.

I was impressed by the bold creativity of the organisers (Seb Coe?) -- picking the risky Danny Boyle to do the opening ceremony -- and terrific graphics, design and architecture. It was the sort of genius that used at one time to inform the BBC’s comedy programming and their drama production (one-off plays, I'm thinking of). Lesson: let creative people get on with it without having to negotiate with ‘management’.

Cameron’s educational response has been to say there’ll be more money (which will mean the money they took away in the first place) for competitive sport in schools. Their other educational push is for ‘excellence’. But my understanding is that the money that was put into sporting activities by the last government (including lottery money), and that has paid off in the Olympics, was for fitness, health and active pursuits generally, not just competition, and that what these Olympics at their best have showcased isn’t just ‘excellence’ but sportsmanship and decent behaviour -- everything that bankers and corporate management aren’t about; and that the money went not just to the selected best (though that was important) but also to facilities for everyone. It’s the latter we want more of in schools and local areas -- swimming pools, for instance. We can have any number of Tescos, it seems, but no political party has the guts to say we’ll take half Tesco’s profits off them and put the money into an equal distribution of swimming pools -- or concern halls or train and bus services.

I think the lesson for education, since that’s what I set out to write about, is that the aim should be a general flowering and flourishing: make provision -- facilities and staffing -- for all sorts of potentially rewarding academic and cultural pursuits, from Greek and engineering to learning the bassoon and the high jump, make kids want to pursue them and show them how. Done right, this will lead to no end of ‘excellence’ (and university applications) but also to a population that knows what to do with itself and doesn’t easily get bored and reduced to daytime TV.

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