The UK is currently basking in the glory of having hosted a hugely successful Olympic Games. Our athletes performed incredibly well and for those two weeks there was a fantastic buzz of excitement and joy out on the streets. Within moments of meeting up with friends or strangers, conversation would inevitably turn to this subject and ‘the’ question would come up: ‘did you get tickets?’
My family and I were lucky enough to attend a morning session of athletics and, like everyone else we knew who had made it there before us, we Facebooked our location with some smug looking pictures. But actually it wasn’t about showing off, it was about saying to our friends that we were part of this great thing that was going on, that we were proud of what was happening and that we could feel that intangible vibe of positivity.
Now the games are over, the media is riding the wave and turning its attention to another question: What will be the legacy of London 2012? This is a question that is ultimately directed towards the government, as the people have answered already. Sports clubs across the country are inundated with requests for membership and there simply isn’t enough space, time or personnel to cope! And as Team GB seems to have been promised a reasonable amount of funding to get them to Rio in four years time, it seems that we’ll have more athletes than ever to choose from.
The government response to the question of legacy however, has been a little different. The answer has manifested itself in two different but ultimately telling ways and both revolve around schools.
The first response was a report which has exposed a change in policy that allows schools to sell off and/or build on their sports fields. Until now there had been strict guidelines on how much outside space a school had to provide, but now, in the light of Olympic success and glory, they don’t seem to matter as much!
As the opposition leader calls for sport to be timetabled more often in the school week (something that’s easy to do when you don’t have to actually implement policy), the government is ,making it potentially harder for kids to get outside and exercise in adequate facilities.
The second response to the question of legacy came amidst the controversy of our GCSE (public exams taken by all students at 16) results.
For the first time since they were introduced 24 years ago, GCSE pass rates went down. Now they only actually went down by 0.4%, but the knock on effect has been significant. In fact there is going to be an investigation into the results as it would seem that the exam boards have arbitrarily changed the grade boundaries between January and June, meaning that thousands of students who gained a D grade this summer would have got a C if they had sat the exam 6 months earlier. Initial reports suggest that this has come about as a result of government pressure to stop media headlines about grade inflation and exams getting easier. Instead, the headlines are about disappointment, deception and poor-management.
The tagline of London 2012 was ‘inspiring a generation,’ and within just a few weeks of the games, after they had so brilliantly lived up to this mantra, it seems that the people in charge are letting them down.
So what can be done?
We need to turn to our heroes of the hour for guidance.
Nobody summed up the true route to success and offered a better kind of inspiration than Mo Farah. When he was interviewed after his second gold medal victory and asked about how he did it, he replied: “It’s all hard work and grafting…It’s been a long journey grafting and grafting, but anything is possible.”
That is a message that kids don’t hear often enough, certainly not from celebrities and probably not from their peers. Whilst teachers and parents may go on at them about this, it is hugely refreshing to get this reinforced by someone who has achieved their dream on such an international stage.
It seems unfortunate that if you boil down the contents of this article so far that it appears that Mo Farah’s gold medal is synonymous with an A* in your GCSEs. This, I think, is where the problem lies.
Inspiring a generation to ‘graft’ and work hard is a positive and important message, but so is doing something you love and being inspired. Getting great exam results should be a by-product of this success and motivation, not the final outcome.
The Olympics and Paralympics show you people who triumph over adversity, they show you people who can do things better or faster than anyone else in the world, people who have lots of skills, like Jessica Ennis, or just one skill that they are really, really good at. But what you also see are people who are very talented, but not as talented as a lot of other people. These people are also heroic. The athletes from tiny nations who come last in the first heat of the 400m, but are just happy to have run a lap of the track. The athletes that come 4th, but know they had the best race of their life. These people are inspiring, because they remind us that it can be about working hard and succeeding, but on a personal level.
This is where the education system lets students down. Personal success is not rewarded. League tables, ranking schools by exam results do not take into account that John started his school career not being able to write his own name, or that Jane has such severe dyslexia that she had never completed an exam until earlier this year. Those stories don’t make headlines and sadly they don’t have an impact on policy.
I think competition is a good thing. I think it makes children stronger and more versatile. I think it prepares them for the ‘real world.’ I think it helps them overcome difficulties. But, in order to inspire people and motivate people, they have to be recognised as individuals. Even someone who is deemed to ‘fail’ can be told of improvements they have or could make. A list of results doesn’t do this.
A list of results doesn’t tell you a story. And a list of results will not inspire a generation.
Teachers can. Teachers should. And without rigid exam curriculum to follow, they probably would, at least more often than they do now. It’s frustrating that so much of the exciting and more personal teaching and learning has to stop when students start GCSEs. Just as they are becoming more mature and able to handle more weighty, complex problems, we hit them with the hammer of blandness until they submit or fail. We lose a lot of kids to boredom in the current system. If we could find time to talk to them about their interests, introduce them to new ones and set them work which would excite them, then maybe we could get to a place where a list of results doesn’t matter as much.
It is vital that the current generation of students are well-educated, well-rounded and socially-aware. They will be competing in a job market that will be extremely competitive and skills-driven, but they need to be able to explore their own, individual skill-set. Nobody is going to ask Mo Farah to compete in the discus or Michael Phelps to have a go at the 110 metre hurdles. These athletes know where their strengths lie and they utilise this.
One of the key jobs for a teacher is to help a student find their strengths (and weaknesses) and help them to use these in the best possible way. Not every child will be Usain Bolt or Ryan Lochte, but they should at least be given the opportunity to find out if they prefer the track or the pool.