It’s great that David Cameron has been prominent in attending the London Olympics, and even better that he has been sufficiently enthused by the tremendous success of British competitors to make a call for greater sports emphasis in schools. But is Mr. Cameron naïve in passing the blame for a ‘lack of competitive ethos’ on to teachers? Or is he simply the latest in a line of Prime Ministers from Margaret Thatcher on to pay lip service to the idea of sports in state schools whilst simultaneously cutting the funding that makes it possible.
The problem, as ever, lies with both government and school leaders. Since the education revolution of the 1980s, government has been immensely successful in focussing attention on academic results. The annual publication of exam league tables has forced schools into an ever more intense cycle of relentless grade chasing. Good, you might think, for the academic side of education. Not so good for all the other aspects of school life. School leaders have certainly got to grips with the idea that they need to show, year on year, consistent exam success for their students. Sadly too many of them have taken a rather one-paced, narrow perspective of this, making exams their focus at the expense of other, broader aspects of a decent liberal education. The most significant casualty of this has probably been school sports, with trips and visits not far behind.
It isn’t directly the government’s fault that too many school senior management teams increasingly hide behind a ‘cover my ass’ culture of ever more detailed, time consuming and off-putting bureaucracy. Too few heads and deputies are willing to support their staff in running after school sports, or arranging fixtures, putting lengthy forms in the way of keen teachers and taking weeks to pass even the simplest request to run an extra-curricular activity. One friend of mine, newly qualified and teaching in a state school, commented in despair at the fact that she had to fill in a lengthy risk assessment in order to take her PE class into the park for a class session. The park was opposite the school. Her risk-averse head took two weeks before he decided he could agree with her several page risk assessment, and demanded parental consents and health forms from every parent before the lesson could be conducted. Lesser teachers would have given up long before. Plenty of heads, too, insist that their sports staff attend tedious after-school inset sessions over running school sports fixtures. It is little wonder that teachers who might once have been enthusiastic over the idea of running extra-curricular sports give up in the face of the mountains of cowardly, pass the blame bureaucracy put in their paths by senior staff. (I should incidentally declare an interest. I am a rarity amongst teachers, working as I do for a head who positively encourages extra-curricular activities and ensures a can-do atmosphere in his school, happily taking the ultimate responsibility on himself and giving his staff a high degree of leeway to run things. Why? Quite simply he trusts their professionalism, and he understands that responsible leadership involves supporting rather than hindering them).
But behind this school problem is a government problem, and whatever he says now, Mr. Cameron cannot honestly claim to have supported the revitalised sports culture he now wants to see in state schools. His education secretary cut the funding to the School Sports Partnership and devised a sixth form funding formula for state schools that removed financing for extra-curricular sports in sixth forms. Only academic A-levels are deemed worthy of government funding in the state sector. As a way of hindering sport in schools, that was pretty good going. And, of course, if you are going to inculcate a blame culture for poor exam results, you can hardly act surprised if your head teachers choose to ignore the poor relation – sports.
The independent sector has a distinguished sporting record because independent schools invest considerable sums in supporting their sports provision. They pay for professional coaches, offer considerable scholarships for students with strong sporting ability and invest in state of the art sports facilities. None of that is available for state schools and no, sports professionals who can command considerable salaries are not likely to respond to a Big Society call to work free of charge in schools.
If Mr. Cameron’s commitment to long-term sports provision for the majority of British students is more than simply the passing enthusiasm of an Olympics fan, then he needs to encourage an ethos of support, accompanied by appropriate funding, in the Department for Education first and foremost. Otherwise, he might be best advised to avoid the debate altogether.