When Michael Gove made it fashionable to blame “the blob” for the supposedly disastrous state of our education system, he unleashed a powerful narrative on state schools. The narrative told us that progressive state education had been an unparalleled disaster (with the not-so-subtle subtext that this had happened on Labour’s watch). In the past few years, some high profile bloggers and writers have repeatedly called for a return to ‘traditional approaches’ to teaching, as the only way to save our children from the fate that awaits them if “the progressives” continue to have their way. The DfE is equally clear about the solution: our children lack character, they need more resilience, more respect, more of a military ethos. We are told that our children are needy, entitled, that we make too many excuses for them, that we need a more competitive approach in education. Rigour, rigour and more rigour is needed. Testing, testing and more testing is the order of the day. This, apparently, is the only way to put the “progressive” mess right.
In October 2010 Michael Gove axed the £162 million dedicated funding for school sports. It was also revealed that he had approved the sale of 21 school sports fields. After an outcry, there was a partial U-turn on the funding for School Sports Partnerships, but the selling of sports fields continued unabated. In 2015, figures revealed that 27 schools had been given the go ahead to sell some of their “playing fields land” in the prior twelve months, making a total of 87 schools to do so, since Britain hosted the Olympics in 2012. And yet, as I sit here watching bits and pieces of the Rio Olympics while I’m on my summer holidays, I can only marvel at how brilliantly our progressively state educated young people are doing, despite all the difficulties that appear to be stacked against them. As a nation, we’re not great at blowing our own trumpet, but let’s face it, Britain is well and truly smashing the odds when it comes to the amount of medals we are racking up. Yes, Sport England has been given lots of lottery money to throw at the situation. But one thing is undeniable: a hell of a lot of those young athletes went through school, and first played sports, at the time the Blob was supposedly doing all that damage.
Yes, it’s true that there is an imbalance between the number of sports stars who were educated privately, versus at state schools. At first glance, it would seem that state schools should account for more than 70 per cent of Olympic medal winners, since they educate around 93 per cent of children. But the massive difference in sports facilities between state and independent schools goes a long way towards explaining this imbalance. There is also the fact that private schools generally have more time, space, funds and parental support, allowing them to focus on a broader curriculum, including sports (and the arts). So as our little country punches well above its weight in the Olympics, I’m taking a moment to celebrate state education, and all the teachers who do such fantastic work encouraging children to play sports in schools. And while I’m busy celebrating things that are rather unfashionable at the moment, I should also mention all the amazing athletes that we have, thanks to immigration. Because if commentators are going to blame feckless youths, “progressive teachers” and immigrants for all the supposedly bad stuff, the very least I can do is to say thank you to them for their achievements.