We must not force competition


We must not coerce pupils into a one-size-fits all menu of sporting activities in the pursuit of our Olympic legacy, says Brian Lightman.

A year ago as the new term started our thoughts were focused on the horrible aftermath of the riots. This year things could not be more different.

Despite the debacle of this year’s GCSE grading and the distress it has caused pupils, teachers and school leaders, I am sure that many school assemblies will instead focus on this summer’s stupendous achievements during the London Olympics.

Achieving third in the medals table against a backdrop of such talent would be a giant accolade for any country, let alone a small one like the UK. While the Paralympics are just beginning as I write this, I am already in awe of those athletes and the training and dedication that have brought them this far.

I am delighted that Lord Coe has been appointed to take forward the Olympic legacy and I know that teachers and school leaders will rise to the challenge of preparing for Rio with enthusiasm.

As school and college leaders we know that those gold medals were only a small part of the legacy. Behind every gold, silver and bronze medal were all of the other athletes who made the team or who had been champions in local, regional and national communities before getting as far as the heats. Millions of hours of perseverance and perspiration, encouragement and training enabled that to happen.

As a school leader, I have always believed that every young person can succeed at something. The challenge for teachers is to help them find their niche. For some, competitive sports may be what inspires them and many lives have been changed by that experience.

For others, finding enjoyment and fulfilment in other fitness activities is equally important and can begin to address the daunting challenges of obesity and unhealthy lifestyles that we face in a modern society. That might not win Olympic medals but it might lead to healthy, balanced individuals.

Like so many others I was dismayed at the ill-informed comments made about our state schools during the Olympics (and by the way 70 per cent of the gold medallists this year were state school educated, up from 45 per cent in Beijing). 

All of the schools I worked in had highly committed PE staff who did everything they could to inspire and enthuse young people. One of those schools had beautiful state-of-the-art facilities which made their job a lot easier. Others were less fortunate but staff still battled against sometimes immense odds. Our Olympic legacy has to address those inequalities.

This is what we want to see Britain doing to address the Olympic legacy: every young person in every kind of school needs an entitlement to a national curriculum which enables them to participate in and enjoy sports, learn how to become fit, and understand what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. It must help them to develop confidence as well as the knowledge and skills to master activities. That offer must include competitive sports but not coerce pupils into a one-size-fits all menu of activities which put some off sports for life.

We must invest in highly trained teachers, coaches and support staff drawn from the full range of public services in order to provide these opportunities within and beyond the school day.

We must invest in high quality facilities which are managed efficiently and available seven-days-a-week to the schools and the communities they serve.

The starting point for this important work is to be proud of and celebrate those achievements which are now part of our heritage, so that our younger generation is inspired to even greater things. Like all investment this will cost money but the returns are enormous.

  • Brian Lightman is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Visit www.ascl.org.uk


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