If you want to gain an insight into the personality of men my age, you could do worse than ask one simple question: “Were you a Coe or Ovett man?” Some 40 years ago these two very different, but exceptional athletes, battled for middle distance supremacy at the Moscow Olympics in two memorable finals.
I was an Ovett man. Steve always struck me as someone who’d be happy to join you for a beer after training and be singing raucous Irish songs long after closing time. In contrast, Sebastian Coe came across as someone more at home in the junior common room.
Over the years however, Coe’s achievements have won me over. And actually, they provide useful lessons for colleges looking to serve their communities.
Background: College staff to protest against campus closure
The first thing we can learn from him is his sheer determination. He lost to Ovett in the Moscow 800m race when he was regarded as the better of the two at the shorter distance, yet managed to beat Ovett over his weaker 1500m. He repeated that gold medal performance four years later.
His resolve can help us understand how to approach curriculum.
Coe was coached by his formidable father Peter. After Moscow there was a feeling that, having lost at the shorter distance, Coe should move up to longer races as he didn’t have the speed for 800m any more. His father was scathing. “If you don’t have the speed you don’t move up, you go down and get some!”
Coe took that advice, trained hard and in 1981 set an 800m world record that stood for an astonishing 16 years.
Taking inspiration from Coe
I think of this a lot when I see colleges making decisions about curriculum and even the location of provision.
Colleges remain under huge financial pressure not least because of the high-stakes nature of modern inspection. If an inspector rules you a failure, your income – even if you have high local demand for provision – can be suddenly removed from you. There’s a risk that we make curriculum decisions based on not upsetting the inspector rather than not upsetting the customer.
Ofsted judges the quality of what you do, not what you don’t do. That may seem logical but I’m not sure it is. Twenty miles down the road from Bedford lies Barnfield College. A decade ago it was an Ofsted-rated "outstanding" £40 million institution that made a huge difference to the Luton economy. Its entire provision was local. Having lost its way since, it has shrunk to a third of its former size and it is very unlikely it will regain that lost ground.
However, it is entirely possible this much smaller entity could eventually be judged "outstanding" but in terms of its contribution to the locality and the country it would always be a very pale shadow of its former self. Shouldn’t colleges be judged on whether their overall contribution and size is appropriate rather than simply judging what is delivered?
We’re rewarding cutting out the provision the community needs and wants, rather than fixing it.
At Bedford we have a mantra that says: “The community drives the curriculum drives the people drives the money, never the reverse.” If the community does not want particular provision, for example, if applications fall sharply and students are not simply choosing a competitor, then we should stop delivery. But if they want it and we are delivering it badly then we should change the people and/or change the level of investment. As Peter Coe might have said, if you don’t have the quality, go out and get some.
The importance of community
This applies at a macro level as well as at curriculum level. The decision reported in the FE press to close Stourbridge College certainly wouldn’t accord with the Bedford mantra and looks bizarre.
I am sure no town of 70,000 people would vote against having a FE College. If the community drives the curriculum, how can you decide to deny that community any curriculum? It is a decision driven by money not community – let’s inconvenience the community rather than trouble the Treasury.
Some will argue this sort of rationalisation is for the greater good, part of important educational reform. For Noam Chomsky, the word "reform" is interesting and is usually used to mean something that power systems approve of. In the US he says the term "educational reform" just means measures to undermine the public education system. We know many Stourbridge people will not meekly move to where the power system dictates.
Coe didn’t give up because he lost, he found a way to get better and found the inner resources and inner resolve to give his fans (his community) what they wanted. Let’s not sacrifice provision on the altar of inspection and short-sighted financial imperatives.
Ian Pryce is chief executive of Bedford College