Rants By Jo Sibley

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This is a temporary copy of Jo's blog entry on the NCETM web portal: It was this rant that prompted Jo to start her own blog: Sadly, Posterous died some time ago .... I don't know if Jo continued blogging. I should check ...
I was listening to a section on Radio 4 the other day where the fact was quoted that more than 50% of GB medals won at the Beijing Olympics were won by athletes who had been educated privately. The programme appeared to hold this up as an outrage: that more than 50% of our medal winners came from 7% of the population was held to be terrible, and 'something ought to be done'.

Well, I agree that the statistic is stark, but startling? Hardly. Anyone who has been involved in education, on either side of the fee/free divide knows that there is no way that state schools can compete (apologies for the pun) when it comes to producing the kinds of specialist athletes required to become medal winners.

One of the guests on the programme suggested that there was an insufficient culture of competition in state schools and this was the reason children did not strive to excel. The argument she gave suggested that children who are seen to excel in state schools are bullied (she gave the example of Tom Daley). This was cut down rapidly by a second guest, who said that in fact he felt the opposite was true: that it was considered 'cool' to be sporty, that success on the sports field was a 'badge of honour' which was vital to popularity and that it was more likely that the more academic and less physically active students would be targets for bullies.

I have to say that my experience presses me to agree with the latter opinion, and I am musing, without any evidence to confirm this, whether Tom Daley was more a target for bullies because of his evident exam success, in spite of the time given and dedication to his diving, than because of his sporting success (he gained an A and eight A* GCSE grades). Bullies certainly can be vicious, and seeing their victim succeed in spite of their harassment doesn't suddenly make an inveterate bully radiate warmth and sunshine to his fellow man.

There are obvious issues here: parents of independent schooled athletes are much more likely to be able to afford to transport their kids to meets, galas or events, more likely to be able to provide rifles, ponies or fencing kit and more able to use their financial influence to ensure that their children are given every opportunity to achieve.

The R4 programme however were pushing the idea that this was something the government ought to be sorting out: programmes for state schools were suggested, holiday activities, financial support for those who showed promise. All of this is marvellous, but it won't fix this, in my opinion. It's all about incentives, IMHO. In the independent sector, there is a reason to support the individual. Independent schools are incentivised (sorry for that word, but it fits my purpose best here) to provide for the nurture of each student as an individual, because each student is effectively an individual customer. This means that it is in the interest of an independent school to provide a curriculum which is tailored to its students: if you have a student who has shown promise in fencing, you make sure that fencing is available for that student because, by golly, his parents are paying you to.

This also applies to other areas: I'll bet if there was an Olympiad for Music (there may be, apologies for doing limited research on this!), independents would (do?) take a majority of medals here too, Even key subjects such as maths have a better ride in the independents - Further Maths has never come close to dying out in the independents as it did in the state sector, because parent power ensures that the subject will run even if the class size drops below the minimum requirement. In a state school, it has often been the case that once the number of FM students drops below 6, the school will refuse to run the course as they consider it not to be cost-effective: the incentive is completely reversed.

Which brings me to my final point: state schools are brilliant at producing footballers but pretty poor at producing fencers. Why? Well, because of financially efficiency and government policy. Football can be taught to large groups by small numbers of teachers. It requires a bare minimum of investment in equipment:consider the cost of equipping an entire football team compared with the cost of equipping a fencing team (assuming the venue for each is already in existence which is normally the case, I think). Football is 'cool' to a broad range of kids (and particularly to those from less affluent families where it is often the only sport which is entrenched in home culture) and can be fitted into the school curriculum neatly. It can be (and often is) squeezed tightly to give more time to academic subjects - ah, and there it is, the key point. The major incentive is state schools is results. Results, results, results. Anything which is not expressly measured by Ofsted must be sidelined, financially and in terms of curriculum time allocated. That's why state schools will not be able to redress this imbalance, no matter how many programmes and projects are set up. We simply cannot afford the time to focus on individual students when we are forced to focus on the mass. A simply marvellous croquet squad won't cut any ice if your A*-C passes aren't up to snuff when Ofsted come a-calling. The kid who excels at badminton, dressage, epee, butterfly, bassoon, calculus or ikebana becomes an awkward statistical anomaly who hasn't quite reached his projected grade in English and makes the whole group look bad.

Oh, now I'm feeling a bit solemn. Still, four weeks of holiday left, and I think it's time I went and found some extra activities for George. He shows no interest in footie so far (can't resist a small sigh of relief) so all I have to do is search through the vast range of possibilities to find his Talent. And then find someone who can encourage him to Olympic standard.

Wait, that could be me! Maybe I'm on to something here... maybe, just maybe, it's actually parents who make the difference?


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