'Sport and setting are alive and well'

20th November 2009 at 00:00

I went to school as a student in the 1970s, during what might have been regarded as the decade of comprehensive liberalism. Yet setting and competitive sport seemed very much alive.

When I arrived as headteacher at Islington Green in 2002, the school was still basking in its reputation for singing the chorus "We don't need no education" for Pink Floyd. I thought I would discover a liberal school committed to equal opportunities and non-competitive sport.

Then the PE department presented their plans for sports day, which could only be described as pre-runner for London's 2012 Olympic bid. I tried to trim down their plans, worried about cost and that only a minority of children would feel "included and successful". I was presented with an ultimatum from the PE department, then my deputies, and finally a petition - not from the athletic elite but from some of the most troubled and challenged learners in the school. This group suddenly found their voices to tell me that I was suppressing their human rights.

One lad called Stanley said: "Why have you banned sports day, Sir? I wanted to see Kenny run like the wind, close up, even if I can't manage it myself." The sports day went ahead.

I shouldn't have been so surprised. Many of the assumptions I'd had about the teaching profession from reading the press were shattered when I finished my PGCE in Leeds. When I took up my first teaching job at a school in a leafy middle-class area of Essex I had been expecting to see more mixed-ability teaching. Instead I was struck by the rigidity of the setting. The maths department went as far as to line up every child - literally - according to their IQ and put them in class groups accordingly.

Even though the headteacher was very keen to introduce mixed-ability teaching, he only went as far as allowing faculties to do it, rather than imposing it. The debate in the staff meeting was impressive.

"Speaking as a born-again Christian," said Nigel, the careers teacher, "mixed ability is anathema to my beliefs." That was calling on the highest support possible, I reflected.

"Speaking as a born-again Marxist atheist," I replied, "I cannot accept God's part in this debate." I was forever known in the staffroom afterwards as a Marxist and an atheist.

English departments traditionally favour mixed ability, and maths setting. Arriving as head of Islington Green, I had expected a powerful mixed- ability lobby. Instead I discovered a school that had always set by ability. Following a visit to charter schools in New York, I tried to introduce an integrated curriculum in to key stage 3. It involved all- ability teaching. The staff voted against it at an NUT meeting. We rowed back the plan for a year to get people ready for its introduction.

So competitive sport is, in my view, alive and well. And setting is a friend to the majority of teachers and schools, as far as I can see. Contrary to the media reports, the more inner-city you go, the more embedded it becomes. Never in my 28 years of teaching (five local authorities, seven schools, 14 years of headship) have either ever been banned.


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