6 Ways In Which Education Can Learn From London 2012


It’s been a while since I last posted. I’d like to say I’ve been busy, but it would be a lie. Like most of Britain, I’ve become a couch-potato because of the Olympic Games. (I thought the aspiration was to get us all off our couches, but there you go). There’s been a great deal of media talk about what London 2012 says about us as a nation. As you might expect, I’m more interested in how the way the country has organised, and responded to, the Olympics offers some lessons to how we might improve schooling. It’s not such a tenuous link, honestly. Here are my top six lessons to be learned.

Cultures can change, if there’s a common mission. People who live in London are astonished at the transformation in the city this past two weeks. People on the tube are making eye-contact, and actually talking to each other. Jonathon Freedland brilliantly summed up some of the attitude-shifts:

“A place which succeeds brilliantly.. by drawing equally on all its talents, black and white, male and female. A place where money and profit are not the only values, exemplified by the 70,000 volunteers who made the Games work and showed the world a smiling face while they were at it. A place that reveres not achievement-free celebrity, but astonishing skill, granite determination and good grace…. A place where patriotism is heartfelt, but of the soft and civic rather than naked and aggressive variety”

School cultures are notoriously difficult to shift, but great school leaders understand the need the need to instill a sense of common endeavour, not just change-for-change-sake. We may have been repeatedly told that ‘we’re all in this together’ by our leaders, and urged to help create ‘the Big Society’, but none of the ‘Games Makers’ who happily gave of their free time needed such cajoling. They were doing it because they ALL wanted to make the city a happy, welcoming, place – if only for a few weeks. Time will tell if any of this endures, but if  mustn’t-grumble Brits can be transformed into smiley flag-wavers, then school leaders can turn around even the most recalcitrant teachers. 

Our education system should be like the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Yong Zhao argues that educational reform which is geared to ‘catching up’ with nations further up the PISA table, is both futile and doomed to failure. Instead, he suggests that systems should reflect each country’s strengths and characteristics. It was reported that Michael Gove, our education minister, marked an early version of Danny Boyle’s already-legendary opening ceremony,no more than 4 out of 10. Heaven only knows what Gove would have wanted, but I suspect it would have involved ‘traditional values’ and trying to outdo the Beijing ceremony of 2008. Boyle’s brilliance is that he began with who we were, but swiftly showed who we are, and who we can be, in all our quirky, eccentric, creativeness. And he didn’t care if the rest of the world ‘got it’, or not. It turned out that there was much the rest of the world didn’t quite understand, but they applauded its vitality, and individuality. We need to worry less about how our test scores  compare with our comeptitors and more about how well we’re preparing our kids to be successful global citizens, with unique sets of skills and attitudes.

Schools need to have ‘secret squirrels’. A large part of Britain’s success in the games comes courtesy of the cycling team, led by Dave Brailsford. Having already triumphed in Beijing, the cyclists were under fierce pressure to repeat their success.One of the reasons for that success lies in what Brailsford calls the ‘secret squirrel’ club: a group of experts who look for innovations which work in the worlds beyond cycling, and try them out in the workshop. Chris Boardman (a previous gold medal winner, and inveterate ‘tinkerer’) was commentating on the mountain bike race on the BBC.  He was asked what difference the absence of paint on the British bikes made. ’60 grams’, came Boardman’s instant response, ‘but it depends on the colour of paint.’ He learned this, apparently, from the aeronautics industry. Some of the really innovative schools I’ve worked with – Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale, Cramlington Learning Village, MLC and Northern Beaches Christian School, in Sydney – all have their secret squirrel clubs. They travel the world visiting, not just other schools, but other industries. We need more schools to get out there determined to adopt, adapt and experiment – how else can they innovate?

Diversity isn’t just good, it’s essential if we’re to succeed as a nation. My favourite Tweet of the games was posted after the ‘Super Saturday’ in the Olympic Stadium, where Jess Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah had won gold in the heptathlon, long jump and 10,000m within one glorious hour: ‘There’s a ginger, a woman of mixed race, and a Somalian refugee walk into a pub, and everyone buys them a drink!’ A week which was shamed by a Conservative MP criticising the ‘multi-cultural crap’ of the opening ceremony, had ended with universal appreciation of the cultural diversity which makes Britain such a vibrant place. We also need diversity in our school system. I’m no fan of our government coercing schools to become academies, but I do applaud the introduction of ‘free schools’, simply because it’s the quickest way to create the diversity which the system needs, in order to build innovation. 

Politicians know precious little about what actually goes on in schools. How else do you explainDavid Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, vowing to make competitive sports compulsory in primary schools? In an interview with the BBC he foolishly said schools had abandoned regular competition in favour of ‘Indian Dance’ and ‘prizes for all’. Firstly, anyone can tell you that some forms of Indian Dance are pretty energetic. Second, schools haven’t abandoned competitive sports with other schools – they just find it harder to organise since the government announced the cutting of the School Sports Partnership Trust. Thirdly, if Mr Cameron listened to any of our new sporting heroes, he might not see competition as the ‘silver bullet’ to ensuring the sporting legacy of London 2012. Jess Ennis, for instance, suggested that competition should only be gradually introduced, and that the emphasis in primary school should be upon participation

If it’s good enough for physical education, why not the whole curriculum? In an attempt to translate the feel-good factor of London 2012 into a sustainable future for sports participation, the Labour opposition have proposed cross-party collaboration to create a 10-year plan. The argument is that the health of the nation’s young is too important to allow party politics and ideology to get in the way. Well, I know I’ve written about this before, but isn’t the academic, spiritual, intellectual and emotional development of our young people just as important? Parents, students and educators have all suffered from schooling being treated like a political football, to the point where we don’t even know what progress looks like anymore. Why can’t the major parties agree to work together to create a 10 year plan for schools, not just school sports?

On a personal note, now that the Olympics are over, I need to channel my own secret squirrel observations, and get back to writing my book.Hopefully, it’ll be finished before Rio 2016!


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