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Usain Bolt, chinning Russell Brand, and what do we mean by winning?

Everyone loved Bolt’s one-eyed long lens.

Who’s the fastest person in the world? If you said that Bolt cove then damn your eyes and call yourself an Englishman? It is, of course, Stephen Kiprotich from Uganda, who spanked everyone else in yesterday’s Marathon. Fastest man in the world over twenty six miles and change. I’ll tell you something else:  it’s also Michael Phelps, at least over 100m in water doing the butterfly. It’s also Victoria Pendleton, as long as you’re talking about the women’s (or ‘girls’ as commentators prefer to describe them, as if they were a clutch of spinsters descending on a tearoom, or Miss Jean Brodie’s pride) keirin, which I think might be a boy’s name.

Oh, I’m sorry, did you mean the fastest man over 200 metres? Or perhaps the man who obtained the fastest unassisted speed at any point in his event? The answer you get depends on the question you ask.

But at least there are benchmarks; cornerstones of absolute truth that we can all agree upon. Usain Bolt, you will be relieved to hear me concede, is certainly the fastest man in the world at this point, at least of the ones being measured, unless there’s a very modest postman somewhere with thighs like Treebeard’s middle leg. This might sound a bit ‘Who’s stronger- Spiderman or Captain America?’, but how would he do against Mo Farrah over 5000 metres? Or forced to hammer down a rubberised track, leap short of the foul line and land in a sand pit? When you win, they call you a winner, but what we mean by winner depends on what you mean by a win.

In the Olympics, thankfully, such matters of salon philosophy are largely settled (thank Christ, thank Christ; can you imagine Twitter? ‘What do you even MEAN by long jump?’ etc): tracks are length X; competitors start at point Y; first person to chin Russell Brand wins, etc. Newtonian physics and our confidence in length, breadth and absolute time provides clean and clear results.

I think this is one of several reasons that the Olympics has been so omnipopular; where else in life do you get such pure narratives of success and striving? Every night for a fortnight we have seen people’s dreams realised or battered in a clear and straightforward way. The criteria for that success has been unambiguous, unless you’re watching Judo in which case a soft voice-over will tell you when someone stumbles. We don’t get this level of clarity in life; we don’t have such fairy tale scales and stopwatches to indicate that this goal has been achieved, or that target has been finally met, resistant to further rebellion.

In the world outside the stadium, winning is a far fuzzier concept. 100 metre races end but life does not. There is a reason why fairy tales close with ‘Happily Ever after. The End.’ Because no one wants to read a story about what they had for dinner the next day (unless you’re a user of Instagram) or how tired they were when they had to feed the baby (unless you’re on Facebook).

And this points us, finally (I promise I will always Steve Cram education into these blogs) to what we mean by a successful school. When does a school win? Or a student? Whatever criteria you create, that is what institutions will strive to resemble, like plasticine. Jessica Ennis was not worried about the artistic points she would achieve from the angle of her foot or the vigour of her smile as she bossed the hurdles, because there weren’t any. (Usain Bolt of course, was mugging it across the digital ticker tape, but he’s a cocky showman with talent to burn. There are always exceptions, thank God) When you reduce success to a league table composed of one plane, or two planes, then don’t be surprised if schools stop doing anything other than that plane; or if every other endeavour becomes servant to it. It’s a horrible, anti-life state of affairs, but it’s what you get.

I think people were a bit confused by the closing ceremony, because nobody knew if it was good or not. We didn’t have a benchmark we could relate it to. Were the Pet Shop Boys fast enough? Did Boris Johnson win the Tory VIP dance-off, or did D-Cam steal it by a soft white belly? What about those moments when the organisers thought that world-class stadium entertainment meant piping recorded music over pictures of David Bowie while Pan’s People built a tiny ziggurat out of polystyrene? Was that like the diving?

We all want kids and schools to win. But what’s a win?

The Games are over. Let the Games begin.

Lessons from the Olympics 2: Wanting the World is not enough

It’s like opening a window and smelling fresh air. Listening to people’s reactions to the Olympics is almost as heartening as watching the damn thing themselves. Any cynicism about our four weeks of superhuman gasping is lying low for now like dry ice, and boy, is the air clear up here. There are plenty of things to get snippy about, to carp and mew and harrow; this is not one of them. No event is beyond reproach; nothing is ideal. But at least this aspires to be.

One of the saddest things I ever met in teaching was in a poor, poor school in a rough, rough area, where, when you asked the kids to what they aspired, they replied- seriously- ‘the dole’; ‘ASDA’; ‘hustling’. That taught me that the cages we build inside our minds are at least as important as the economic circumstances from which we emerge. Being wealthy isn’t enough- it sure helps, of course, and the concomitant support and culturally inherited aspirations are strongly correlated with that position. But it also takes something more, something that has been paraded prodigiously in the last week at Stratford.

It contains ambition of course, but many Alfred Prufrocks and Walter Mittys have ambition; I see many kids banished to school corridors, bunking school, bursting with ambition. That isn’t enough by itself. The child who answers my earlier question with ‘International Rap star blud’ or ‘Player for Chelsea’ is being just as flippant with his future self if he isn’t doing anything about it. He might as well say Peter Pan if he spends his weekends playing Call of Duty and his school days inhaling Dorchester Blacks. Ambition, without inspiration that translates into a plan, is just desire, wishing. I have yet to meet anyone whose dreams came true this way.

Careers advice in schools ranges from life-changing to life-changingly bad, as with any profession. A lot is said about teachers inspiring their students. I think these is truth in this, but not the bunny-hugging manner of those who think it means telling them Disney platitudes are true: ‘Believe in yourself!’ they say breathlessly; ‘Follow your heart and be true to yourself!’ they say, confident that they have ticked the box ‘inspire’ on the to-do list. Well meant, but this has the opposite effect from the desired one.

Tell a child that they have to be true to themselves, and they might decide that means they don’t need to change because the’;re just dandy as they are. Tell a child to never give up on their dreams, and they may find that those dreams have kept them from fulfilling another dream they never knew they had.

No. Here’s how you inspire a child:

Part 1: You tell them they are capable of just about anything
Part 2: You tell them how hard it can be to achieve it.
Part 3: You show them how others have achieved it. No bullshit. No pretending it’s easy.
Part 4: You tell them they can do it. Then you pass it to them.

That’s inspiring. I recently did a series of classes for Year 9 and next year’s sixth-form cohort where I talked about Uni and other options; it was 50% ‘Go for it, you can do it’ and 50% ‘This is going to be really difficult. Are you ready to put the work in?’ I tell them that for the vast majority of them, how well they will do at this point now depends on them, no one else. I tell them that from the second they leave the class they are masters of their own destiny. I tell them that they can get any grade they want…if they want it badly enough, and if they are prepared to put the effort in to achieving it. And I tell them, just as importantly, what failure looks like- not in the form of a grade, or a career, but in terms of the gap between what they want to achieve and what they will achieve if they don’t want it enough, and don;t do anything about it.

It is a joy for me as a teacher to see so many people holding up the Olympians as role models, because they are; they represent a clear and clean metaphor for success and achievement and ambition that doesn’t entail wealth, consumption or possessions, but instead the noblest goal of all- an object pursued for its own intrinsic worth: excellence. I don’t want children to try hard solely to be rich (although by all means do so as well); I want them to try hard so they succeed as themselves; as the best that they can be in their own field.  These are the men and women I want my students to write essays about, and other Olympians in the fields of maths, science, literature and charity, to put stickers on their bags and phones, to look up to.

There is nobody hammering around the track, or draining their blood of oxygen in the Olympic Stadium right now, who has not practised and practised for more hours than most people would think existed in the day. The joy of it is that there are men and women there from the most modest of backgrounds. It is the duty of every teacher to believe that any child is capable of some form of greatness, because we all are.

It is also our duty to inform them that being great is rarely a product of not giving a damn.

The Olympic Legacy for Education

As I write, the Übermensch are making nations of boggling Calibans like me vibrate with silent, reverential awe as they caper, vault and hammer on the envelope of human possibility. Something wonderful has accompanied them; the cynicism and (sometimes justified) schadenfreude about the bureaucracy of the project has been swept away in a touching Mexican Wave of sincerity and admiration. From the first bars of Danny Boyle’s satisfying smörgåsbord of wit, sentimentality and spectacle, even the Olympic pedants of Twitter were struck dumb, like a mass, Damascan conversion in cyberspace.

 So what does it signify? A goldmine of meaning and understanding about what we value and how we choose to achieve it. These games are the incarnation of what we perceive to be excellence, the word made flesh. And that scans precisely onto education; already the chattering classes (of which I am a citizen) have started grumbling for their countries: Lord Moynihan has stated that the independent sector’s domination of the medal table is ‘one of the worst statistics in British sport.’ Lord Moynihan, who attended a boarding school under a music scholarship, strikes up a common, faintly boring air that is played at every such event. You might as well ask why richer people have bigger cars. Some people will never be happy, it seems, until the demographic of economic position is perfectly mapped onto every other demographic possible.

What do the Olympics actually tell us about education?

If you build something, the bricks have to come from somewhere

Wrong

So far, it appears that the promised Apocalypse of transport gridlock failed to happen. London can be navigated with as much ease as such a metropolis allows. To my mind this indicates that the transport planning has been successful. WIN? Not a bit of it, apparently, as men with Armageddon placards wail in corners bemoaning the loss of consumer footfall. They are apparently oblivious that when you move something, other things move to accommodate it, like shifting a coloured square on a Rubik’s Cube. This is also a common headline in education every time a new policy is invented, and shrieks rise up declaring that some other group has been disadvantaged. No change benefits everyone. Progress requires advantage and its opposite. Nothing incredible was ever built without effort, and sacrifice. The only way not to disturb anything, is to do nothing.


We actually quite like winning

For Adam Smith, competition was the fuel that propelled innovation; Mickey Marx decried it as the goad of the beast, pitting brother against brother. In schools, too, we often see apprehension about where to put the competitive spirit. I remember at my secondary the Head Master announced at an assembly that we would no longer have school prizes because it was elitist, while we looked at each other and thought, ‘You BASTARD’ and quietly vowed to each blog about it decades later. At some schools, Sports Days have melted like mist in the face of this anxiety. Levels replace grades, in AFL, grades vanish entirely in case children fall victim to the vice of comparing themselves against one another, and like Jamie’s Dream School, no one leaves without a certificate and everyone’s a winner.

Ban this competitive filth

Well, as I like to keep mentioning, when everyone‘s special, then no one is. You don’t have to subscribe to Gore Vidal’s lovely saw that, ‘It is not enough that I succeed; others must fail,’ to believe that competition is a healthy and human part of our outlook. Unfettered, it becomes an egoistic burden; directed, it becomes a powerful incentive to human achievement. You think all those athletes would be just as happy running and leaping by themselves? Not a bit of it. The sound of spiked plimsolls drumming the track inches behind you turns a run into a race into a chase, and ambition is multiplied. Children need competition too, guarded and monitored by an adult to prevent its excess.

Right now, a nation is hopping up and down about, amongst other things, medals, wins and dramatic narratives of prowess. There’s a lesson for the classroom there. I chide any child in my class who doesn’t do as well as I think they could do, not the predictive quack prophecies of the FFT scatter graph. I push, I coach, I nudge, I harass, and I praise, according to their ability. And if someone does a bad job, I bloody well tell them it was a bad job. No one is served by wet platitudes about ‘well, at least you turned up.’ Children deserve better. They NEED us to be better.

We also quite like people trying really hard

Winning isn’t everything though; we also value trying. I’ve heard some brainless, sub-Talksport debates about whether success is winning or not. We value both the achievement and the effort. If we didn’t then the Paralympics wouldn’t exist: we don’t look at the achievements of Paralympians and say, ‘Yeah, but Wiggo was faster, who GIVES a f*ck?’ (actually, the Daily Telegraph might say this, but we’ll gloss). In fact, if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have women’s sport at all because ‘they mens is all quicker, innit?’ We do celebrate the ones who defied the percentages and nearly made it.


Exams are getting easier.

The 12 Days of Christmas got a makeover from Spinal Tap

I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, Olympic records keep getting smashed,’ they say. ‘Surely this means the 100m is getting easier, ha-ha take that people who think exams aren’t as hard.’ And of course it doesn’t, because for a start, all the best times are now millimetres away from each other rather than miles. And also best times can’t regress; they can only get beaten, eventually, which given thousands of athletes all smashing themselves against the wall of human possibility, is bound to happen eventually.

We want to be proud of ourselves

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, it seems, but we don’t even have to succumb to this to admit that feeling that we share values, that we can participate en masse in some gargantuan, unifying communal event, even as spectators, is a baptism of satisfaction and value. We need shared values and communal hopes to flourish not only as citizens, but as individuals. Never mind that this sentiment is often exploited by the ruling classes to direct nations to war and consumption; it is also a powerful pillar of succeeding in a society. You don’t have to divest yourself of the liberal attraction towards individualism and autonomy in order to perceive the value of the polis.

Schools need to understand this; I’ve seen schools that are almost apologetic about proposing shared values and ambitions, as if they were terrified of offending anyone. Perhaps it’s the necessary uncertainty of a largely post-religious state that is still coming to terms with absolutes and foundational truths in the absence of God. Whatever it is, schools, teachers and parents need to be careful to represent values towards their children; if they don’t, the children only learn to value what they themselves considerable desirable, the values of their immediate peers, or worse, nothing. We are not carbon neutral in their lives; we are participants, not observers. We are catalysts. We might as well be good ones.

How do we provide for the most able?

Can you imagine being Jessica Ennis’s PE teacher? I imagine it would be a mixture of pride and fear. I know a lot of teachers struggle to know what to do with the most able, so they just give them loads of extra work, or let them sit quietly texting when they finish. One casual factor in this has been the accursed league tables, with their damned obsession with the D/C boundary that meant schools raced like Usain Bolt to assist the borderline babes, and ignored the very best and the very least able as done deals. A plague on this House, that condemned 2/3 of our children for being too bright or not bright enough to care about.

Actually, most PE teachers I know are pretty good at catering for the most able; extra coaching, out-of-school clubs and so on. It’s in the classroom I’m most worried about, as some teachers still treat the more able Olympians of Geography, History and English as lower priority students. There’s no more G&T program (if indeed, it was effective, it was because it at least focussed on them as a group in need). Now we need to make sure that all able students are pushed as hard as they can bear if they’re not prepared to do it themselves. And many aren’t. They are, after all, children. Some mornings they want to train in the dark, and sometimes they don’t. Our job is to play the part of of Burgess Meredith in Rocky, cycling along beside the great Italian hope as we chew on a stogie and shout ‘Ya needs ta run faster, ya bum!’ through a megaphone.

The legacy of the Olympics shouldn’t just be about stadia and vajazzled lawns rising from the marshes of Stratford; it can also be about what we mean by excellence, and how we want to achieve it. Which means schools. Which means how we teach.

Social mobility, the Olympic Games, and justice in schools

‘Where’s my cake!’

Fair’s fair- beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.

Let’s say I bring a cake to the party- I’m like that- and we decide to split it between all ten of us (obviously it’s not much of a party, unless Dita Von Teese, Tom Jones and Gandhi are involved). What would be a fair way of dividing it up? Ignore, for the minute, the cack-handed crumb-bath that would normally ensue when a civilian attempts to cut a cake into anything other than four pieces (and even that’s a struggle for some- in my previous career running restaurants, I saw innumerable birthday confections sliced up lengthways. I fuss you not).

The obvious answer is cutting it into ten equal pieces- that’s fair, right? Everyone gets the same amount, and justice is served, like gazpacho, cold.

But hang about- what if one of the party members (let’s say…A C Grayling has dropped in) hates cake. Can’t stand the stuff. Would it be fair to give him something he doesn’t want? Furthermore, what if another guest is fasting for Pentecost, or Hallowe’en or something? He doesn’t need it at all. Meanwhile, you discover that another of your guests is starving (Imogen Thomas?)- shouldn’t he get a bigger piece? And what about you- you made the bloody thing. Don’t you at least deserve to lick the spoon? And- oh dear- it’s someone’s birthday…

Unfair possessor of a Triple-Y chromosome.

Fair’s fair- that much is certain; but beyond that, it’s anyone’;s guess. There are so many ways of discussing distributive justice (the given name of the concept) that it becomes obvious that justice- getting what you deserve- is a will o’ the wisp, a phantom, a late night taxi.

I’ve been thinking about justice lately, mainly because of the Olympic scandal that’s been rocking out of every media portal the last few weeks; apparently it has become compulsory for every news report on 2012 to be padded out with several minutes of hatchet-faced misanthropes desperate to have a good moan at the camera. ‘I never got a ticket,’ they say. ‘And I’m British!’ or something. I mean, it’s a valid factual point to make- many people failed to receive the tickets they desired- but it’s a fairly thin scandal to dwell on.

The latest one was on the news last night; the Stratford Olympic committee had, in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the locals, invited hundreds of residents and knitting bees onto the newly- minted lawns of the Olympic village, for tea and biscuits. Even the weather was on its best behaviour. The aim was to show them how egalitarian the whole affair was- even if they couldn’t attend an event, the Olympic zone itself was open to all, and people could soak up the atmospehre. Were they pleased? Not a bit of it.

‘We didn’t get any tickets,’ said another identical, bitter would be Olympian, her life dream of attending the Men’s canoe slalom shattered, torn from her paws as soon as it came into view. ‘It’s a scandal.’ And another complimentary scone vanished into the moist, dark, velvet interior of her mono-toothed mouth.

Well, a scandal? Watergate it isn’t. Her complaint, echoed in part by many others, was that as a local resident she should have been allocated priority tickets. Oh, and free ones, I might add. Which is interesting- distributive justice as defined by proximity. There’s a Gregg’s The Baker not two hundred yards from me; perhaps I deserve a bag of Yum-Yums due to the fact that I can see them from my window, the selfish bastard? Our oppressed heroine, I might add hadn’t applied for any tickets either. But she was pretty sure she deserved them.

Olympic bike: wouldn’t last long in Stratford.

I pity the Olympic Committee (and believe me, it’ll be a few trips round the Milky Way before I say that again about Seb Coe and Princess Anne); I’m not sure how they were supposed to play it in order to satisfy the hitherto unknown public passion for distributive justice in matters Olympic. People who have never before even considered attending a women’s Pentathlon at their local sports field are spitting feathers about their God-Given right to watch one next year. Thomas Paine, I imagine, is weeping somewhere, and spinning like Robin Cousins.

Damned whether you do or don’t: the tickets were issued on a lottery system- all bids were taken, limits set, tickets priced in bands, and then an enormous game of virtual roulette took place, matching desire to destiny in as random a manner as possible. Now forgive me, but that sounds bloody fair to me. Financial barriers to justice were reduced by keeping prices low for all but the seats on the frickin’ track itself.  A system of collecting all the bids before allocation meant that it wasn’t a first-come-first severed situation. Computer allocation ensured that name, rank and connections were dispelled as contributory factors. And still, many did not receive. Well, boo-hoo-hoo; isn’t life dreadful? I imagine the orphans of Haiti are saying prayers for us as we speak, thanking their lucky stars that all they have to cope with is despair, penury and natural disaster, rather than the privation of disappointment in matters athletic.

Justice is a funny thing. It’s an intrinsic of social justice, a concept so rarely out of the papers and the speeches of Masters of the Universe that I suspect that it’ll be dating one of the sinister, pneumatic homunculi from TOWEI soon, and launching an injunction to prevent details of its extra marital affairs tickling the Tweetosphere. Social justice is an interesting idea- that distribution extends far beyond mere financial considerations- although that of course is an intrinsic part of the equation- but also referring to the distribution of opportunity, privilege, honour, access, and a million other aspects of a life lived in the company of others.

This idea drenches modern thinking on education- and quite right too; Plato’s idea of the Gold, Silver and Bronze man, born to different stations, and bound for different destinies, is rightly reviled as a jailer’s manifesto. Of course, this is how life still works out, but I can hesitantly claim confidence in saying that it shouldn’t be anyone’s idea of Utopia. We intuitively appreciate the concept that merit should be intrinsic to advancement in life, and schools should seek to support this, at least in a structural way. I am wary of positive discrimination for the simple reason that replacing one injustice for another doesn’t appeal, and is usually perpetrated out of a misplaced sense of cultural guilt. Besides, such policies are also usually created by people who will be perfectly unaffected by their outcomes- in other words, let the injustice be shuffled around the board a little, and hope that will serve.

Lady Justice after the re-branding.

It certainly won’t. The aim of any policy aimed at social justice should be the increase of the sum total of that justice, not the redistribution of injustice to other squares on the board. Social mobility works both ways, of course, and one often ignored factor in the equation is that when one counter moves up the table a space, another counter often moves down. That’s why I’m broadly against schemes that offer preferential entrance at University level for Free School Meal candidates- penalising the children of the affluent may satisfy some misplaced sense of entitlement, but it’s as vicious and unfair as any other discrimination. It cuts, you see, both ways. We cannot claim justice only for one segment of the public demographic, and deny it to another. That dichotomy cuts into the heart of the deontological nature of the concept itself. Justice is universalised, or it is not justice, however much we sympathise with the outcome.

Many attempts at improving social justice in education are well meant but equally fruitless. Exhibit A: preferring therapeutic behaviour management techniques for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The idea, now perfectly common in many schools, that we should avoid giving clear boundaries to pupils from economically impoverished families. The argument goes that these pupils should be taught emotional intelligence through the medium of therapy, discussion, pointless, heart breaking chats and continuous appeasement, rather than establishing rules, rewards and sanctions in a clear and dignified process that actually values the person’s status as an autonomous human being.

Another enemy of social justice: target grades, as provided by organisations such as the Fisher Family Trust and other, equally diabolic Factories of Satanism. Why? Because every time I look a the target data for a pupil and see an F, I think to myself, ‘How utterly pointless.’ What a lousy, cruel non-aspiration for any student. You know what my targets for all my students are? An A. That’s not to say I expect that they will all get there. Nor do I berate them if they don’t get it. But what I won’t do is expect them to scrape by. I refuse to communicate the low aspirations that society has for these pupils. They already have low enough aspirations for themselves, often communicated and reinforced by their families, their cultures, their peer groups, or whatever. I refuse to collaborate in their oppression.

Instead, I expect the best from them. I expect them to aim for an A. I expect them to hand their homework in on time; to turn up on time, every day possible, and have equipment. I expect manners. They can expect pretty much the same from me. That way, I don’t treat them as helpless victims of circumstance. I don’t treat them as if they were shackled to their caste. And I certainly don’t expect them to be anything less than their fullest potential. This is, of course a recipe for perpetual disappointment; but it also provides the ingredients for the occasional six-star firework, exceeding even my own expectations.

I learned a lesson a long time ago: one of my boys in the bottom set scraped a C at GCSE short course. Out of sympathy for his resilience (the class was pandemonium- I had just started teaching, and was as effective as a soluble prophylactic), I allowed him onto the R.S. A level. He got a U for the first year, of course. Again, I was moved by compassion, but insisted that in order to proceed, he resit all papers. At the final A2 exam he scored an A. Life permits an X-factor; not some silly vaudeville talent, but an unknown element of change, resilience, excellence and awe. Call it the Shavian life force, call it a gap in Universal Causation, call it free will, call it a soul. But it resists prediction; it thrives on encouragement, and effort, and willpower. It is fuelled by faith, and optimism. Like love, it is the great current that propels evolution, and civilisation and wonder.

But it can be burdened and bound, buried and distracted from its own purpose. We can teach the children that we expect them to get an F. We can applaud them when they do so, or nearly do so, or do anything at all that they choose. We can embed in them, not a sense that anything is possible, but that anything is acceptable. And then we should resign, not fit for purpose.

Fair is a small word that, mined for a moment, gives birth to a hydra of meaning. But it doesn’t mean anything; it must mean something, or it means nothing at all. And fair means giving the children who need it most, the most boundaries and direction; giving them aspirations where none existed before. It means rules guided by love, and faith tempered with self-restraint.

I didn’t get the tickets I bid for, incidentally. It’s a bleedin’ scandal.