Gazza as the wayward metaphor

6th December 1996 at 00:00
In the summer of 1992, I had a meeting with an official at the then Department for Education about the White Paper Choice and Diversity which had just been published.

I had been through it with a fine-tooth comb and had a great deal critical to say. By an accident of timing, an article I had written was published a day or two before the meeting and concluded with the sentence: "In the league table of 20th-century White Papers, this one will find itself in the relegation zone, just above Luton."

I doubted whether this sentence would help to put the official in the right frame of mind for our meeting and hoped he hadn't seen it. When I arrived, however, he had my article on the desk in front of him with the Luton sentence highlighted. Our meeting, to my surprise, went well. Then, as I was getting up to leave, he said:"Just one thing about your article."

"Yes," I said, preparing myself for the worst.

"I just wanted to know," he went on,"what have you got against Luton?" I escaped that time, but using football as a metaphor for life - which comes naturally to a Liverpool boy like me - has often got me into trouble since.

In Newcastle in January, I tried to cheer everyone up at an education conference by saying that shortly the local education authority would be performing even better than the football team.

Immediately afterwards, Newcastle United ran up a string of defeats which gave the Premiership to that horrible lot from Manchester.

I also appear to have given Crewe Alexandra the kiss of death. I suggested in this column that in 2005 they might be European champions (and received letters of congratulation from both of their supporters the following week). But they have struggled ever since, in spite of being managed by a former teacher.

These experiences led me to hesitate before I wrote a word about Glenn Hoddle and the brave new England team he manages.

But some of Hoddle's statements recently cry out for comment, so I've decided to take the risk. When he decided to pick Paul Gascoigne for England's recent game against Georgia, there was an outcry. How could he pick someone who so recently had allegedly been involved in beating his wife? I sided with those who thought Gascoigne should have been left out. Footballers like him are megastars, role models for countless boys (and some girls too) and much more influential in shaping their thinking than politicians or even sometimes (sadly) teachers. Gascoigne should, in my view, have been dropped to demonstrate that the authorities believe that wife-beating is absolutely unacceptable.

When Hoddle appeared at his press conference, I thought I knew what he would say about his decision. He would, I was sure, say that his job as a football manager was to pick the best team and while he would judge Gascoigne on his footballing prowess, it was not his job to judge what he did off the field. In short, he would play back the age old view of sports authorities that sport and life are two different things.

But he didn't. I was struck dumb. What he actually said was: "The human being is more important than the footballer." What other British manager would have said that? I was hooked. Hoddle went on to say that he thought Gascoigne's life could be rescued and that he, Hoddle, could help. The idea of playing football for England as therapy was a new one on me but it occurred to me that here, for the first time, was an England football manager who believed what most of us in education believe: that everyone is educable. Though I disagree still with Hoddle's decision, I shall respect the man's judgments from now on.

Appealing though it is to have a manager who puts the human being before the footballer, I began to wonder whether this attitude would still gain respect in the press if England lost a game or two under his management. His judgments so far have survived unchallenged because England keep winning. But, on reflection, I don't think Hoddle is a naive idealist. His explanation of the Gascoigne decision does not fully explain his view of the world. What he really believes is that by treating his players as human beings first and footballers second, he will actually get a better football team. In other words, more rounded, better educated people will play better football.

This is the view of life that enabled Ajax Amsterdam to win the European Championship in spite of having much less money than Manchester United or the big Italian clubs.

Interestingly, it parallels a shifting view in other walks of life. Management textbooks these days talk about principles, values and even spirituality. Meanwhile, Francis Fukuyama, the political scientist, who a few years ago declared the end of history, now says "... those who pay attention to community may indeed become the most efficient of all."

All of which is a long-winded way of getting to a serious point about schools. (Any non-football supporter who has got this far: congratulations!) Simply this: the best way of improving exam or test results may not be to concentrate narrowly on academic achievement. Schools which truly educate the whole person (including the academic, of course), will, I believe, be the most successful schools in every respect. In other words, too narrow a focus on a single goal could prevent a school from achieving it.

Columbus reached America by looking not at the water but the stars. And Glenn Hoddle is an infinitely better role model than the dreadful Paul Gascoigne.

Michael Barber is author of The Learning Game, which is published by Victor Gollancz

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