Hung up on going for gold

19th May 2006 at 01:00
A few star pupils or a successful team of all-rounders? Peter Greaves knows which he prefers to cheer on at school As a summer of sport engages a nation, I have a sense of dej... vu. I hear pundits and organisations stating their expectations for performance with rounds or scores being labelled as "minimum requirements" or "satisfactory performance". Perhaps schools can teach the sporting institutions a thing or two about target setting and action planning.

Take, for example, the expectation that surrounds the London Olympics. So much excitement greeted the award of the games. Soon, though, came the questions of not just whether London could host a decent games, but where Great Britain would come in the medals table. The 2012 games will not be deemed a great Olympics unless accompanied by host nation success, say the sporting governing bodies.

As a consequence, the people allocating funds for training have a dilemma.

Choice 1: target all funding at the events most likely to breed success, however fringe they may be in terms of prestige. Choice 2: encourage participation in the events everyone will want to watch, even if there is less chance of a medal. I wonder how the public would reflect on a games where second place in the medals table had been achieved because of impressive results at crown green bowling, but without any representatives in elite event finals such as the 100m sprint. Will history judge the London games a success based on the medals table, or the quality of the overall experience?

This seems to parallel the continuing dilemmas schools have in determining what experience they should be providing for their pupils. I know, I know.

It is not just a political platitude; it is the wish of our profession that our schools shoot for excellence by pursuing a broad and balanced, enriching curriculum. All too often though, schools find themselves having to make a choice between the two.

Take the deployment of support staff. Teaching assistants have allowed pupils to be given real "kiddie" moments in school. Small groups cooking here, another group doing some gardening there, sewing, clay work, orienteering, cross country; all these and many more have been organised alongside the taught curriculum to enrich it.

Now however, these same teaching assistants are far too valuable for their ability to intervene in literacy and numeracy to allow them out of small group reach. Whatever the dream might be, schools often feel they are judged far more on their medals table than the quality of the games.

The parallel breaks down, of course, when you consider the training. Sport is full of committed individuals who single-mindedly pursue their goal, focusing only on the relevant. Maybe the problem is schools just don't know what the "event" is. If schools only have outside criteria for what is meant by "success", then that is what they will train for, all the time experiencing the dissatisfaction that comes from focusing too narrowly.

Pupils need mastery of literacy and numeracy of course, but they need opportunities to develop so many skills and the broadest possible experience of all things. Rather than trying to choose one or two events to pursue at the expense of all others, perhaps we could look to the decathlon for inspiration. Participants may not be world record holders in any one discipline, but over time they can become the most rounded and complete athletes in the tournament. If literacy and numeracy skills, however essential they may be, were but two of 10 events, what other eight desirable attributes are our schools seeking to train modern day primary pupils in? How about:

* Empathy - how we need them to be able to put themselves in the shoes of others.

* Imagination - the challenge to keep them dreaming.

* Ability to learn - what know-ledge we teach now will be relevant in 20 years' time? The skill of learning can always be used.

* Courtesy and respect - every foundation class is built on this. How desperately important it is to provide regular workouts in this.

* Confidence - the first victim of a stressed-out classroom.

* Discernment - I wonder if they do believe everything they see, read and hear.

* Self-acceptance - what a gift to be content with who you are.

* Questioning - for them to know, in Shakespeare's words, that there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy.

This is more than just pointless dreaming in the shadow of the self-evaluation form. Although we may not always feel that attributes such as these are the official criteria for inspecting and judging schools, I do think this is how parents and communities get the measure of us. Schools that aspire for all-round quality are forgiven by those it serves, for missing out on the odd gold medal. The crucial thing is for that school to know what it is striving for. I hope as a profession we can continue to find the confidence to believe that not every day should be spent training for the hurdles and high jump.

Peter Greaves is deputy head of Dovelands primary in Leicester What's hidden in your curriculum? See this week's 24-page special, Innovation Stations

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