All that glitters is not gold
As an educator, my aim is to help all the learners in the schools I lead to discover their talents and achieve their potential. I recognise them all as individuals and aim for them to retain their individuality as they grow and develop. One of my schools has 'Go For Gold!' as a school motto, put in place by a previous headteacher and pupils. I have never used this too much, as I have always had concerns about some of the messages it sends out. But this year, we took this as the theme for all our assemblies, and have shaped these around the qualities and dispositions we all need to be the very best we can be. So we have talked about collaboration, perseverance, persistence, resilience, and pupils have shared successes and achievements they have had both in school and outside. Some of these have involved pupils in winning medals and trophies, but many more have been about personal achievements that are more intrinsically valued than extrinsically recognised.
However, I still feel the messages we are trying to give are often deflected by those of the culture and society in which our learners exist. It still seems to me that our politicians, media, sports organisations, culture and many parents, are still obsessed by winners, at the expense of everyone trying to achieve their own personal best. Don't get me wrong, I am not anti sport, or excellence in sport (or anywhere else for that matter). I have been involved in sport all my life, both as a competitor and as a coach, and I really appreciate and understand the talent, dedication and sheer hard work it takes to get to the top of any sport or activity. But, for me, sport and achievement have always been about more than just the headline grabbing elite performers. It has to be about the grassroots, the millions of participants who take part because of their love of the activity, and the coaches and others who help them have those opportunities, and help to develop their understanding of how they can support their own wellbeing throughout life.
To many governments sport, and the winning of gold medals, is about national pride and prestige. We can trace this back in the modern era to Germany in the 1930s, then Russia, China, East Germany, and all the western governments that thought the same but were perhaps not so explicit in the strategies they employed. This led to State-sponsored doping programmes and ruthless approaches to the treatment and abuse of athletes and coaches, many of which we are still seeing across many sports today. The 'win at all costs' mentality which has embroiled athletes, coaches and sports and has led to one scandal after another. Amongst all this the Olympic Games has become a bloated and tainted version of what it once was, riven by by drugs, cash and political egos. And yet we still talk about 'legacy', especially when countries seek to justify the vast amounts needed to host them. But, what is the 'legacy'? It is supposed to be a sporting infra-structure and culture that remains and is detectable years after the event in the country and society that sacrificed so much, and paid so much, to be the host. We only need to look at what has happened in Rio, and in London and the UK, following their Games, to see what happens to these dreams of 'legacy'.
However, there is a subliminal 'legacy' to events like this, and it is; that if you don't have a medal, preferably gold, you have failed. That's the harsh message we are giving to young people and to the sports they love being part of, not to mention those who have worked so hard to get to such events.
Sport is awash with money from the lottery and elsewhere, but after each major games there is a reappraisal of funding distribution. If you have not made your target, as an individual or a sport, you will face having your funding cut or removed altogether. The message is, 'we are only interested in winners'. The fact that a sport like badminton, for instance, is one of the most popular participatory sports in the UK, counts for nothing, and funding is gone. The ruthless way that some sports governing bodies treat their athletes sends out very similar messages. Cycling, swimming, athletics and others have been embroiled in accusations of bullying and treating their athletes in very harsh ways, as they have come under more and more pressure to deliver results i.e medals. The same sports have also been caught up in doping controversies and, to me, it seems this is a direct result of the pressure for ever improving results to maintain funding, and the amounts of money that are available at the top end of so many sports.
All of this re-enforces the message that young people get that winning is the 'be all' of sports participation. You might want to be the best you can, but if you are not at the top and capable of winning medals, we certainly don't value your efforts the same. Is this culture much different to the ills of the German, Soviet and East German systems of the past? In terms of the messages being sent out, implicitly and explicitly, I don't think there is a lot of difference. We still get politicians and media basking in the light of Olympic and World Championship successes achieved by other, but which they see themselves as having facilitated. What about the rest, the majority?
Should I be saying to our learners, 'we are only interested if you are the best'? Of course not, but isn't that what society, culture, media, advertisements, are saying to them all the time. In the light of this bombardment messages about winning, and being the best, it is amazing that so many young people still want to be active participants in sport, though it might go some way to explain the huge drop-off experienced by many as they enter their teenage years. Look at the messages given from programmes like 'X Factor', 'The Voice', 'Britain's Got Talent' and so on, some of which ridicule and humiliate entrants before the one 'winner' is identified and the producers move on.
My further worry is that we are in danger of importing the same culture into education, with the same disastrous results. So we have inspections where 'Good' or 'Very Good' are not enough. Now we have to be 'Excellent' or 'Outstanding'. We have more and more standardised testing so we can rank pupils and put them in percentiles. We have league tables, where everyone wants to be at the top, even though we know this is impossible. We have politicians telling us, parents and children, we want you all to be better than average, and if you are not it is the school's fault. Even though this is another statistical impossibility. Not content with national league tables, we now have international ones, and every politician wants their system to be at the top. The media is full of how schools, and systems, are 'failing' because they are falling down the tables, or are not at the top, whilst being full of praise for questionable systems that sit at the top of them. And all the while the message we are sending to learners is that if you are not the best, we are not interested, or you're failing. How long before more schools, for some are already there, start ranking pupils and putting these on display, so everyone can see the 'stars' and 'the rest'?
Such a culture is not going to inspire learners to be persistent, to persevere, to collaborate, to be resilient and to keep striving to be the best they possibly can. Such a culture is unlikely to promote growth mindsets in learners and their teachers. Such a culture will encourage cheating and gaming of the system, because the stakes for those involved have become so so high. Such a culture will be telling learners 'you are not just good enough' or that they are 'failing'. Such a culture will promote the power of the individual at the expense of others, 'dog eat dog'., with parents fighting to make sure their child or children has as much advantage over other as possible.
There is no doubt we should all be committed to improving what we do. The motivation for this should be intrinsic and a disposition in everything we do. When we have our focus on gradings, league tables, funding, kudos and reputation, we lose sight of the individuals we are supposed to be supporting and helping to grow. We have the wrong 'drivers' for change and to therefore assess success. Good luck and well done to anyone who sits at the top of any performance list, but lets not lose sight of the millions that will sit below that pinnacle. As any sportsperson will tell you luck and opportunity play a great part in any success, and perhaps we should strive to reduce the impact of these in our schools and education systems, in order to give everyone the chance to thrive, rather than just the few.