Olympian challenge

8th August 2008 at 01:00

Carpenters Primary School in Stratford, east London sums up the contradictions of the 2012 Olympics perfectly. It is the closest school to the Games complex, and its low-rise blocks, serving a bald concrete housing estate, are surrounded by a rash of property speculation and a forest of cranes.

The intensity of construction is frenzied even by the standards of east London. Wherever you look, half-built apartment complexes loom over the suburb's mix of low-rent office space and tatty pubs, thrown up by speculators eager to cash in on the appetite for flats with "Olympic views".

The effects are felt as soon you enter the playground. "The noise does get a bit much," admits one teacher, grimacing at the constant whine of a pneumatic drill.

Despite the upheaval, pupils are excited about the prospect of the world's largest sporting event landing on their doorstep in four years' time, particularly with the media attention on this year's Beijing Games.

"I'm looking forward to the different sports," says Tahlin Begum, 9. "We can see the Olympics from the window of our house," enthuses Fieza Begum, also 9.

Carpenters epitomises the mixed blessings generated by the 2012 Games, especially in the deprived borough that will play host to the mammoth 2.5 square kilometre park, with its 80,000 seater stadium and capacious athletes' village.

On the one hand, pupils are enjoying geography and citizenship lessons inspired by the changing landscape, including the construction of the amp;#163;4 billion Stratford City business district. Children have visited the Olympic site, and are building an Olympic garden in their schoolyard, with shrubs and flowers from all over the world.

But in practical terms, things haven't been so rosy: 64 children have left the school in the past year, after being turfed out of their council block to make way for luxury flats. And a third of the playing field is roped off, to protect against falling debris from nearby building works.

"There are some negative things, but we want to emphasise the positive," says Elaine McKenna, a Year 3 teacher.

"It is happening on our doorstep and we don't want to be left out."

The corporate feeding frenzy has left some local commentators sceptical that the Olympic Games will do anything for the poor communities, which they are supposed to help out.

Stratford is situated in Newham, the sixth most deprived borough in the country, and half the pupils at Carpenters are on free school meals. Olympic enthusiasts say the Games will provide learning opportunities and valuable facilities. But those who have studied previous events remain doubtful.

"When you look at what has happened in other host cities, these claims start to look ambitious," says Gavin Poynter, chair of the London East Research Institute at the University of East London. "If you look at places such as the Athens site, the facilities haven't been used for community engagement since the Games finished, but for elite athletes."

He points out that pressure to recoup Olympic costs - something that Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, has been firm about prioritising - means it is tempting to lease facilities privately rather than make them available to the community.

"There is the potential to leave east London with a significant sports infrastructure, but if cost becomes the overriding factor, the social legacy could be much diminished," he warns.

Research by Stefan Szymanski, a professor of economics at Cass Business School at City University, and Tanaka Business School, Imperial College, shows that the raid on lottery funds prompted by Olympic overspend is already having repercussions on local sports facilities used by children. While the Government is spending hundreds of millions on constructing a velodrome and state-of-the-art aquatics centre (arguably of limited use to deprived teens), normal sports centres are suffering.

In 2007, lottery funding to swimming pools, gyms and the like through UK sports councils fell to its lowest recorded level of amp;#163;79 million, compared to a high of amp;#163;355 million in 2002.

"A huge sum of money is being taken from sports budgets to pay for the Olympics," says Professor Szymanski. "And that is bound to impact on children."

It would be churlish to argue that pupils won't benefit. Local children seem excited about the arrival of the Games. And this autumn, the 2012 Committee will be launching a vast educational network aimed at harnessing children's enthusiasm with a series of projects based around eight Olympic topics including citizenship, internationalism, culture and enterprise.

The Paralympic Games handover is set for September 17, and schools are being invited to organise their own celebrations. The push will continue with a stream of resources and information through the 2012 website, as well as an e-newsletter keeping schools in east London and beyond informed of upcoming events. The focus will be on inviting schools to generate their own activities (something they are already doing in spades as is evident from The TES Magazine classroom section) and share them online.

"We want to use the Games to increase learning opportunities for young people so we can leave a lasting legacy beyond simple bricks and mortar," says Nick Fuller, London 2012's head of education.

In China, preparations for this month's Games have been revving up for ages, with more than 500 designated "Olympic model schools" across the country charged with inspiring in children values such as progress and unity. In addition, 200 schools are taking part in the "heart to heart" programme, by pairing with pupils and athletes in competing countries.

The authorities have even published a textbook, The Olympic Reader, and teenagers will be quizzed on the event during this year's university entrance exams. But amid all the frenzy, can host countries expect to gain anything from the Games except a temporary boost to educational morale?

Ken Boston thinks so. The head of the UK's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was director of education in New South Wales when the Olympics came to Sydney in 2000, and believes they had an impact beyond the rarefied world of elite sport. "It's an adrenaline boost for sport and performing and creative arts," he says. "It's also a shot in the arm for cultural enrichment, and for knowledge of place and people and geography. People from all over the world descend on your city."

Sydney embarked on a programme of increased sports funding for young people, and allowed teenagers involved in decorating or providing hospitality at the event to put their experiences towards a vocational qualification.

In addition, 10,000 children of all ages were involved in the opening ceremony and in devising performances to entertain the queuing crowds. "There was a lot of fun going on," says Ken. "The educational return doesn't depend on how much money you throw at it, it's how innovative you are. That does not come from cash but from educational leadership."

The 2012 committee will certainly be hoping to show that when it launches its ambitious project to instil the Olympic values of respect, excellence and friendship in the disadvantaged children of east London and beyond. How successful it will be remains to be seen. "I don't see a generation of hoodies out there," says Sebastian Coe, Olympic committee chairman. "I see commitment and talent without a vehicle to drive it. I think we might have found that vehicle."

A winning team

Schools across the UK are being invited to join in the Paralympic Handover Ceremony on Wednesday September 17, when the Paralympic Games are officially passed from Beijing to London in advance of 2012.

By visiting http:paralympichandover.london2012.com, you can download activity ideas and resources, including suggestions such as celebrating the day with a sports festival and burying a time capsule, or composing a list with your class of things you'd like to achieve by 2012.

Pupils are being encouraged to come up with ideas and share them on the website. The Paralympic Handover marks the start of the 2012 Committee's education programme, details of which will be finalised soon.

Olympic torchbearers

London 2012 is organising a project called "Welcoming the World", where children from the five east London host boroughs team up with photographers and film-makers to paint a portrait of their neighbourhood for the Olympic crowds.

It has helped local children feel proud of their area, according to Mary Igoe, head of Columbia Primary School in Bethnal Green, where Year 4s have been recording interviews with their parents and taping their favourite parks.

"I think they're starting to realise that a lot of people will be coming to our neck of the woods, and they are gaining pride about where they live and sharing it with other people," she says.

And although the Games originally seemed imaginably distant when schools learnt they had won the bid in 2005, the enormity of the event is starting to come home to them, says Mary.

"The day we got the bid the dining hall erupted," she says. "I think with Beijing coming up, the whole thing is starting to feel more real to them."

Columbia is just one of 19 schools in Hackney, Waltham Forest, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and Newham taking part in the project. An edited version of the films will be shown at the Paralympic handover ceremony in September.

"I've started to see and hear the images, sounds and thoughts from pupils. They're insightful and surprising," says Robyn Simpson, the project co-ordinator.

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