Doublespeak rules in post-Olympic world

14th September 2012 at 01:00
Hard work, dedication and investment are the ingredients of success, says Bernard Trafford

Comment and argument in summer 2012 start and finish with sport. Team GB's Olympic success (or, rather, the route to it) provides a host of metaphors for success in life and especially in exams. The athletes' personal stories of commitment, sacrifice, dedication and sheer dogged hard work are awe-inspiring. And then we had the extraordinary Paralympics, where we saw those qualities manifested even more starkly.

The parallels are plain as a pikestaff, but that won't stop heads like me from plundering them shamelessly for assembly fodder as we try to galvanise our pupils at the start of the new school year. Why overlook such a gift horse? The nation, and especially its youth, has been electrified by Olympian examples of endeavour and, above all, of triumph over adversity.

Think of Jessica Ennis, excluded by injury from the Beijing Olympics, returning to devastating form in the heptathlon. Or Somali-born Mo Farah, who trains in America but whom everyone in Hounslow knows as the bloke from down the road, winning both the 5,000m and the 10,000m. Even the least inspired among us can plunder this summer's experience for the ultimate start-of-term motivational speech.

We can also use the achievement of this summer's exam candidates as the model to hold up for the next cohort. Moreover, this year we've all been spared the customary mealy-mouthed congratulations from education ministers while the usual dinosaurs roar and posture about dumbing down and falling standards. Both groups were unusually muted this year.

Sadly, they have kept shtum because top grades fell for the first time since (according to the dinosaurs) educationalists (or, according to Michael Gove, the Left) started deliberately lowering standards to the point where an A level has the value of a 1969 Cub Scout's knot-tying badge. So no triumphalism, just a quiet satisfaction that, because 0.4 per cent fewer candidates got an A* at A level, standards are declared to have risen. Something similar appears to have occurred at GCSE, but we will have to wait for the controversy to be cleared up to be sure.

Hang on. Just run that past me again, will you? George Orwell's 1984 has finally arrived. Under Big Brother's iron rule, people have to learn to speak the contradictory, to believe the incredible: doublespeak and doublethink. For those exam candidates, who prepared as immaculately as Olympic runners, making this last-minute grade change is like moving the finishing tape after the race has started. But doublethink it and the results make perfect sense. People did (marginally) less well. So it must have been harder. So standards must have risen. Job done.

The other element of Team GB's Olympic success was a spectacularly effective combination of investment, infrastructure, support and strategic development over years. We have moved from the days of a few plucky Brits occasionally winning against the odds to a professional machine designed and resourced to build champions. Hence the current furore about assuring the Olympic sporting legacy - the silly row about selling off playing fields is a smoke-screen. What we should be discussing is not the loss of a few badly maintained strips of grass but how, if we want to build our pyramid of success higher in future, we can broaden the base, because broaden it we must. Grass-roots participation and elite sporting achievement are indivisible parts of one enormous strategic decision for the government. Scoring silly inter-party points about who flogged off more land, and when, won't get us anywhere.

Nothing succeeds like success. Even before the Games ended the prime minister conceded that earlier plans to cut spending on sports development would have to be reversed. Now we need to put pressure on ministers and seize the opportunities created by the post-Olympic zeitgeist. I would start by sticking a specialist sports teacher in every primary. But I am not a sports expert. I can't even catch a ball. Government needs to change its usual practice and listen to experts - in sport and education. Maybe in post-Olympic Britain we can move beyond political smoke and mirrors, capitalise on a remarkable level of national consensus and enthusiasm, and really achieve something.

And will government acknowledge in education policy the indisputable correlation between levels of resourcing and Olympic success? Perhaps that is an Olympic dream too far.

Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle upon Tyne's Royal Grammar School. The views expressed are personal.

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