What our rowers can teach us


What can education learn from the success of British rowing in the Olympics? Phil Parker explains.

In an interview at the conclusion of Team GB’s success in the Olympic regatta, Katherine Grainger (gold, women’s double sculls) was asked to explain the transformation that had taken place in the last 12 years in British rowing. Her explanation described the British rowing squad as being like a school; one where Sir Steve Redgrave was head, she said. His inspirational leadership has generated a bow wave and enormous success has followed.

It got me thinking how education in Britain has the potential to be the same. What it lacks is the inspirational leader that brings the nation together in unity. However, if we ignore Mr Gove, I’d like to focus on the rest of Ms Grainger’s comparison. She listed all those who contributed to the performance of the squad. Let’s compare how experts can provide the support that leads to excellence.

Rowers need sport psychologists to challenge mindsets; school leaders need pedagogical theorists who look at what’s working around the world and challenge the way we teach and expect young people to learn. Rowers need nutritionists to provide the energy to drive improvement; schools need high-quality CPD to feed a sustainable improvement in classroom innovation.

Rowers need physiotherapists to improve physical strength and stamina; school leaders need that same strength and stamina to withstand the barrage of Department for Education rhetoric, red tape and Ofsted-driven change. Rowers need coaches, people who deconstruct practice and rebuild it more effectively; the best school leaders use the same approach.

Ms Grainger said the rowing team was only as good as the quality of those who supported them. This is the lesson we must take away from the London Olympiad and apply to our schools.

We have some fantastic schools in Britain who are achieving success through amazing, bold, dynamic innovations. Why aren’t those lessons shared more often and given great prominence and kudos?

In days gone by, outstanding practice was highlighted by effective local authority teams and regularly disseminated. No longer. Education departments in universities carry out globally respected research but school leaders have little time to read it, never mind apply it.

Not-for-profit organisations disseminate outstanding practice but few people can get out of school to listen to these salutary experiences. Or to collaborate in networks of excellence.

My point is this: education needs to recognise where excellence is, what it looks like (and it’s not always because of the outstanding plaudit), and most importantly, how it can be shared. We need regular access to it as well.

I’ve been working with Whole Education, one of these not-for-profit organisations. Rather cleverly, as schools have signed up and attended events, Whole Education has created a database of two things: schools which have achieved exemplary success through bold innovation, and the factors schools have identified to support them to achieve excellence but which they may not have found yet.

Their aim is to broker ways of putting these two things together for the benefit of the schools who are part of their collaborative enterprise. They are not the only organisation doing this.

We all need to acknowledge this collaborate leadership. If we don’t then education in Britain could be where rowing was 12 years ago. 

We have potential in education. There are people out there offering collaborative leadership. We need to get involved with these organisations that, despite very limited budgets, are building momentum. We need to establish methods to collaborate more, to share that excellence and particularly support those who are trying to provide leadership – in the absence of any from our politicians.

  • Phil Parker is an ex-senior leader of a successful school and is now a director of Student Coaching Ltd. Visit www.studentcoaching.co.uk


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