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A lost lesson from Mount Olympus

Curriculum devisers mumble in their sleep of topics that even with a little imagination they can define as cross-curricular. The impetus is provided, naturally enough, by Guidelines on the Structure and Balance of the Curriculum 5-14. Weightily, it discourses briefly on the philosophical proposition that the curriculum is more than the sum of its parts, then goes on to dangle before the hapless curriculum moulder such allurements as education for equality, media education, the European dimension.

You can feel sorry for the curriculum generator because there are few topics around that without skewing and warping to the point of distortion can be made to fit comfortably across the 5-14 aims of education. Some efforts I have seen remind me of the professional beggars who knot and gnarl their children's limbs to make them better at their job and to evoke sympathy or horror.

Yet there is one topic that shoots across the curricular sky like a shooting star, dipping its tail into practically every one of 5-14's aims, seemingly completely purpose built for the job of boxing the curricular compass, and or even squaring its circle. Suitably enough, it's the big circles, the Olympic Games.

Can you think of a topic that lets children develop and practise knowledge, skills and understanding in literacy and communication, numeracy and mathematical thinking? Understand and appreciate other people? Develop personal and social values? Solve problems? Appreciate benefits of healthy living? Develop positive attitudes to learning and personal fulfilment through achievement of personal objectives?

The Olympic Games are what the Japanese call atarimae hunshitsu - quality taken for granted, handcrafted for the job. Or so it seems. Yet I am profoundly grateful that thanks to our old-tyme vacation philosophy practised by our elected members, our children are not excessively exposed in curricular terms to what I think is a good description of the Games, "an emptiness filled with signs".

Mind you, the signs are seductive ones. The Olympics we are currently hip deep in are fundamental in their presentation of the big issues of sporting life as seen on television - the underdog that triumphs, meditating on the inevitability of losing, adulation of the winner, a word from our sponsor, dedication and commitment carried sometimes past the point of no return into unconsciousness and oblivion. In theory, to carry out the Olympic imperative: citius, altius, fortius. Swifter, higher, stronger.

Well, that is what it says. Every party has its pooper, so when I hear this particular aspiration I feel my own pulse jump-starting to escape it. Recent Olympic experience sadly shows that some of these high aspirations can be achieved with a little bit of help from controlled substances and steroids. Recognising that this is the case, athletes with their eyes set loftily on their swifter, higher, stronger mode are exhorted by their eligibility code to avoid stimulants, narcotic analgesics, anabolic agents, beta-blockers, diuretics, peptide hormones and analogues, together with submitting to medical controls and tests.

Why should this be needed? The unbridled desire to win is at the root of it, and small wonder. The prizes are too good to miss, for talents with minimal shelf lives. The children I come in contact with hardly need to be reminded that controlled substances are bad for you. They trip over the consequences of misuse every day on the way to school. What I object to is the obsessive desire to win, even where the monetary value attached is minimal.

Sport should be a liberating activity, leading to playfulness, vitality, cheerfulness and high spirits, something our children need, and which is crushed in so many of them by the grimness of their living and sporting environment. What they need too are sportspersons who can provide life enhancing quality signs. They do not need souped-up princes and princesses who turn out to be frogs - with feet of clay.

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