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Monday, 21 November 2011

Stand up Mr Gove!

Michael Gove has decided that there is not enough competition in schools.

So do many people, you might say, and they all read the Daily Mail. Sadly, Mr Gove is the Secretary of State for Education; I have no information about his reading preferences.

Mr Gove's evidence for his claim is a little unclear, but he seems to have drawn on a mixture of research and personal conviction. His research reports that one in three pupils do not take part in internal school competition.

I have no idea where he sourced this finding, but it does seem a little concerning. But all is not lost as I have seen research evidence that two in three pupils DO take part in competitions, and that seems a rather promising finding! In fact, since the low tide of school sport in the 1980s, two-thirds of young people taking part in intra-school sport is a remarkable achievement.

Nonetheless, Mr Gove thinks/feels/knows that there is just not enough competitive sport in schools. Perhaps competition is like beauty or truth or celery: it is impossible to have too much of it.

Clearly he feels very strongly about this, because he keeps going on about it. And he continues despite the almost total rejection of his views by those who work in sport or education for a living. Physical education teachers, for example, have looked on in open-mouthed bewilderment as their political leader casually hacks away at the progress they have made over the last decade or so.

Well, Mr Gove was recently joined in his campaign to save PE and school sport from those who know what they are talking about by a recent article on the subject.
Dr Andrew Franklyn-Miller is a " BBC, Dr Franklyn-Miller also thinks that schools need to push competitive sport. For him, the blame for the current namby-pamby attitude stems partly from our soft society which deems it,
"acceptable to aspire to participate rather than achieve, to hope that vaguely defined skills might maintain fitness rather than test our children against benchmarks".
And partly from the national curriculum for PE with its talk of "aspirations of stringing together movements", floating in a swimming pool and "achievements" of participation and understanding.

What should we do? According to
Dr Franklyn-Miller:

"Let it be competitive and let us test our children against each other and identify those who need support from the network of doctors trained in sport and exercise medicine as an existing Olympic legacy."

It is difficult to know how to respond to this article. This is partly because I have a suspicion that 'Dr Franklyn-Miller' is really Mr Gove's more impressive pen-name, so self-preservation is hindering my commentary.

Here are the clues:

1) Both of them talk about the need for 'more competition' in schools, despite the fact that England, at least, has one of the most comprehensive competitive sports structures in the world.

2) They talk about school sport, but neither mention the people who actually run it, and who have made such extra-ordinary progress in recent years: PE teachers.

3) They are disconcertingly vague about the bases of their assertions. Gove just states things as if they were self-evidence truisms. Franklyn-Miller does this too, and adds a few suspicious quotations, to boot (as far as I can tell, the national curriculum for PE never mentions "aspirations of stringing together movements", at all).

4) They both seem to have a faith that competition is inherently motivating for young people, when in fact a huge body of evidence suggests that this is not the case for all. Some like competitive sport; some like dance, or outdoor activities; and some like recreational, but non-competitive physical activities. In fact, an over-emphasis on competitive is routinely given by young people, themselves, as a reason for dropping out of sport.

5) And they both simply assume that the imposition of adult sporting values and practices will drive up participation and performance standards.

Dr Franklyn-Miller says that the curriculum needs to be built on on the "lessons learnt in athlete development, and sport talent identification, not to build potential superstars but to change a lifestyle." What are these lessons? If actual science is to be believed, rather than the hunches of a sports doctor, the first three lessons are:
  1. do not treat children like mini-adults
  2. do not treat children like mini-adults
  3. do not treat children like mini-adults
Both politicians and doctor claim to be bound by the demands of evidence. But neither Gove or Franklyn-Miller show any awareness of the huge body of literature that should inform their pronouncements.

Vitally, there is no evidence to support their guiding assumption that more competition will improve participation or achievement. On the contrary, to the best of our knowledge the most successful curriculums offer a wide range of sporting experiences, including many that are non-competitive. And the underlying character of these experiences ought to be play and enjoyment, especially in the primary years. As even Franklyn-Miller acknowledges, lifelong physical activity is built on a foundation of 'physical literacy', or fundamental movement skills, or 'the basics'. Too much competition too soon undermines the development of these skills.

Does it matter?

Unfortunately it does. I suspect that Mr Gove, Dr
Franklyn-Miller and myself would all agree that regular sporting activities are among the valuable experience society can offer young people. We'd also agreed that physical education and sport ought to be part of everyone's schooling, probably as a matter of right. My worries start when they start to talk about turning these nice thoughts into practice.

Sport is a powerful resource for young people and for society. But like all resources, its use is value-free. The value of sport for young people comes not from the activities themselves but from the quality of the experiences offered by teachers and coaches. Provide a variety of positive sporting experiences for young people and we are some way to laying the foundations for lifelong physical activity and love of sport. Mess this opportunity up by playing to the ill-informed calls for 'more competition', or to push adult sport earlier and earlier into children's lives and the least serious consequence is likely to be a generation lost to the incredible potential of sport.


Colin Chambers said...

My view is that school is part of your preparation for life. Life is competitive. You compete for a job. A partner, the best housing. These things aren't just given to you or atleast the best aren't.

So, while competition creates winners and losers I think it's worth learning that you either win or you gain experience. You learn. In this context I feel sport can provide competitive situations where you can learn to compete with others where the stakes are lower than they are in real life. In school sport your job or marriage isn't on the line.

Learning to compete is a high level skill and as such it should be introduced with care with a lot of prior preparation. School is about building analytical thought. Learning to understand the reason why people win and lose and how looking deeper into why you lost can help you win in future.

Also learning that winning or losing doesn't define who you are. It's a point in time. Andy Murray is a good example. His attitude seems to be that he is perpetually unlucky in his chosen sport of tennis. Always missing out on the big prize. What I see though is someone who is only a few steps from the biggest prize. He consistently wins at all levels except the top grand slam level. There he makes the final. The people he meets in the final he beats comfortably elsewhere. He doesn't fear anyone else in tennis except the top 3 and that's only at the grand slam events. Elsewhere he wins comfortably. He is one of the few players on the planet in that situation. Surely that's a positive thing. It means that he can win a slam. He just hasn't figured out the final ingredient yet.
Essentially it's his mindset of being a frustrated runner up instead of an excited potential winner that belies his British nationality. You could then argue that in many aspects of life we British could do with learning the value of competition. Learning how to get something out of winning or losing so that in the end we always win.
Checkout how to grow super athletes by daniel coyle
It's a fascinating article introducing the concept that myelin (the fatty shielding around the wiring that is our nervous system) is key to developing all skills. He visited many sporting academies in the world spotting the patterns that lead to excellent. It's clear from his insights that competition too early can hinder later development. My view is more that competition is misunderstood. Competition can and should be a place where you learn to face pressure. You put yourself on the line and learn that it's ok to fail. You learn how to fall without hurting yourself and then get back up again. That's how competition should be approached. If you're not afraid of failing because you know you'll come back stronger and try again then you know that eventually you'll overcome the challenge infront of you. that's the message that was missing when I was at school. No one pointed out that exams and interviews as competitive performance. No one else can do these for you but it's also ok to fail. The best results I got throughout school were those in which I was given opportunities to compete with the system, mock exams etc, and then taught afterwards how to learn from the experience. Small simple improvements turned a d into a C, more improvements led to an A.

Personally I have to question the evidence provided. You haven't linked to any studies yourself. These are out there. If mr gove hasn't then you need to.

When I was at school the opportunity to compete in sport was limited. The evidence showed the same was true around the country. That was over 15 years ago. If that's changed that's great. But I understand that most schools sold off their playing fields during the 90's and 00's. So, without the space to play sport I'm not sure where these competitive sporting opportunities could be coming from.

Richard Bailey said...

Thanks for your very thoughtful response, Colin.

I ought to point out that I love competition, and have all of my life. As a former high-level athlete, I am aware of the strengths and weaknesses of competition.

I think we need to be especially careful when talking about children's sport. And, I suppose, my basic position is that it is like salt: it adds flavour is used carefully; if not, it ruins the dish!

I'm not sure what I think about references in blogs. As a writer who switches between journalistic and academic writing, I think I am inclined to keep the former reference-light.

But I do take your more general point about backing up what we say with more than rhetoric. I will think about how to do this.

Sarah Juggins said...

Hi, I like your blog very much and will be coming here for a bit of stimulating sports talk on a regular basis. I posted my thoughts on Mr Gove on LinkedIn so will not repeat them here -except to say he needs to spend a decent amount of time with a range of PE teachers before he starts to teach them how to do their jobs.
Instead, on a totally different note, I would like to recommend the book Money Ball, which is due to be released as a film soon. It tracks the performance of a baseball team that relied purely on stats to pick its team and raises some very interesting points about myths, beliefs, the role of coaches etc.

Richard Bailey said...

thanks Sarah.

for more on Moneyball, check out: (Sport Science: good, bad and bogus). I'd value your thoughts.