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Saturday, 26 November 2011

The one book of which there is never a shortage

Michael Gove, English Secretary of State for Education, has caused controversy (again) with his decision to send a copy of the King James Bible to every school in the country.


At an estimated cost of £375,000, the aim is to mark the 400th anniversary of what is undeniably a very important book.  In the words of the Department for Education:
"the King James Bible continues to shape our culture. Understanding the story of its publication and the impact it has had on today's English-speaking society is an important part of the teaching and learning of history and language."
This is probably all true.


Two questions come to mind, though.


First, will all similarly important books be sent to schools?  The Complete Works of Shakespeare?  Darwin's Origin of Species?  Victoria Beckham's Learning to Fly.  And if not, why has he chosen the one book of which there is never, ever a shortage in schools?  


Second, how does he imagine the eager population of a school (on average, about 150 in a Primary School; about 1,000 in a Secondary) will share this particular book?  Presumably he knows that most children can't happily share with one other child, let alone nine hundred and ninety-nine.  And this is true even when they don't care about the object of their attention.  Once they find out that the book will have a foreword by Mr Gove himself, schools across the country will descend into the animalistic frenzy of a One Direction concert.


Not surprisingly, secular groups have been outraged by this idea.  They see it as an unacceptable attempt to push Christianity further in schools.


But the King James Bible is not really a religious text in the way that 'the Bible' is.  Even Richard Dawkins likes it.  The book is one of those texts that make up what is sometimes called 'the canon': the books that form a literary foundation of our culture.


Personally, I think it is a great idea to promote great books.  But I cannot scratch the niggly feeling that this will not the first of a series of grand actions, and that it might just be a rather costly attempt to support a view of England that belongs in the history books.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Gus Poyet's deep thoughts

FIFA President Sepp Blatter has now apologised for his comments about racism in football. And he is probably hoping that the matter will now blow over. Or for him to make yet another gaffe.

If this is the case, he is probably not going to thank Brighton manager Gus Poyet.

Poyet has joined the debate with an impassioned defence of fellow
Uruguayan Luis Suárez. Apparently the LIverpool striker is not a racist, and his behaviour has simply been misunderstood by us ignorant Brits.

Speaking to Talk Radio, Poyet seems to take it for granted that the LIverpool player used racial terms in his verbal attack on
Patrice Evra. But he was not being racist. Oh no!

It's a cultural matter, you see:
"England needs to understand how the rest of the world lives. If we have that understanding, easy."
"if someone is fat we call them fat boy, if someone has a big nose we call them big nose and if someone is black we call them negro"
So being black is like being fat or having a big nose?

I think Poyet is conflating banter and racism, loyalty and utter bullshit.

Sepp Blatter: Global Village Idiot

The Buddha once said, "The fool who knows he is a fool is wise. Whereas the fool who does not know he is a fool might become the President of FIFA."

November has been a difficult month so far for Football and its aspirations to kick out racism from the sport. In the English Premiership alone there are two serious causes for concern. Luis Suarez was charged by the FA over allegations that he racially abused Patrice Evra. And England captain John Terry continues to be the subject of both an FA enquiry and a formal Police investigation into claims that he racially abused Anton Ferdinand.


TIme, then, for Football's chief to step up and assure the world that matters are in hand. This is, after all, the world game. And the English league is the most visible of all. Problems there can severely tarnish football's reputation around the globe.

This is what Sepp Blatter said when asked directly whether racism was a problem in football, pin an interview by CNN:

"I would deny it. There is no racism. There is maybe one of the players towards another - he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one. But the one who is affected by that, he should say 'this is a game'. We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination."



Blatter: 'There is no racism' on pitch by CNN_International


Not surprisingly, the reaction to these comments has been instant and damning. Rio Ferdinand - via the medium of Twitter - probably said it best: "Your comments on racism are so condescending it's almost laughable. If fans shout racist chants but shake our hands is that OK?"

Blatter seems to make a couple of basic, but serious errors. First, professional football is not a 'game' in the sense Blatter implies. Liverpool and Manchester United do not lay down jumpers for goal-posts, they do not switch players if one team dominates the game, and they do not go for a jolly good drink after the match.

Second, even if professional football were the sepia-toned game he imagines, Blatter is wrong to think that morally objectionable behaviour is allowed. In fact, I cannot think of any context in which sport takes place where racial, or any other form of, abuse would be acceptable, or sorted out with a handshake. It wouldn't be permissible on a school field, nor in a Sunday league match, and it is not acceptable in the Premiership.

But most alarmingly of all, Blatter does not really deny that racism exists in football. He just thinks it is not very serious.

And that is why this latest incident in the tenure of FIFA's boss is so worrying. Racism has been perennial problem for football, and the laudable initiatives to address it, like Kick It Out, can be undermined by the staggering complacency and arrogance of the man at the top.

Old farts and sexy skirts

The former England cricketer Ed Smith has claimed that sport is a condensed form of life, and it has a lot to teach us about 'the game of real life'. I suppose he is arguing that sport is like a model village that we can look at and study from different angles without getting run over. And in some ways he is right.

In other respects, though, sport is very different from real life. And nowhere is this difference more pronounced than in that strange land called sports administration.Administrators are the people who attend meetings, make rules and punish wrong-doers. They run their sports because nobody else has the time and inclination to do so.

Will Carling
famously described the Rugby Football Union committee as "57 Old Farts", and was punished by losing his captaincy of the England team; a severity of punishment reserved for those who have unwisely and willfully stated the bleeding obvious. I have been told that things have changed a lot in recent years, but, now I think about it, my informant was a sports administrator. I have absolutely no doubt there are young, smart and forward-looking people, just as I have no doubt there are also ridiculous old farts smelling up the system.

Evidence?

One of the best-known examples of silly old men reveling the extent of their distance from normal, civilised life was Sett Blatter's suggestion a few years ago that women footballers wear sexier, tighter clothes: "Female players are pretty", he said. "Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball".

On another occasion, when asked about possible difficulties for gay people in Qatar
, hosts of the 2022 World Cup, Blatter's advise was that gay fans "should refrain from any sexual activities".

Now, this is not the opinion of a random old man in a park; Blatter was (and still is) the President of the world body for football.

Boxing, not surprisingly, has its own old farts. Women's boxing first appeared in the Olympic Games at a demonstration sport in 1902, and a mere hundred and ten years later it will return in London. It is well-known that many of the old-guard of boxing are still horrified by the very idea of girls hitting each other, but their influence is clearly waning as women are showing themselves to be equal to their male counterparts in skill, fitness and heart.

Losing the argument on the grounds of boxing, the old farts have recently tried another angle. The
AIBA, the world body for amateur boxing, which is ultimately responsible for the sport in the Olympics, has suggested that women boxers wear skirts to help them stand out from the men.

'Stand out from the men'? I think the AIBA is confusing elite athletes with Bangkok ladyboys. Why is it necessary for boxers to be obviously men or women? Surely the main criterion for their value is their boxing ability.

Or perhaps I am being naive. Some have suggested that the main motivation for this move is what we might call the 'Beach Volleyball Strategy'. In other words, the claim is that the AIBA wants to sex women's boxing up. This was, of course, Blatter's plan with football.

Is this marketing, 1950s style? Or are there more libidinous thoughts here? Frankly, I don't know. I do know that the suggestion is crass, and reveals a lack of confidence in women's boxing just as it is about to be properly launched into the world.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

New Age Kurling anyone?

A colleague forwarded this interesting exchange in the English Parliament this week (reported in Hansard):


Clive Efford: To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport which sports will be included in School Games competitions; and if he will make a statement. [81695]
Hugh Robertson: Currently 24 sports are available to schools. These are athletics, badminton, basketball, boccia, cricket, fencing, football, Goalball, golf, gymnastics, hockey, netball, New Age Kurling, Panathlon (a multi-sport disability event), Polybat, rugby league, rugby union, rowing, swimming, tennis, table tennis, table cricket, volleyball and wheelchair basketball. By September next year, the ambition is to increase that number to 38.
The inaugural School Games national finals will feature 12 of these sports, namely athletics, badminton, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, hockey, judo, rugby sevens, swimming, table tennis, volleyball and wheelchair basketball.



The School Games was launched in June 2010, and is a part of the Government’s plans for a lasting sporting legacy from hosting the London 2012 Games (no comment!). The Games aim to “further revive the culture of competitive sport in schools”. Every school (primary, secondary, special) in England will be given the opportunity to get involved in a package of events and activities.

Do not blame yourself if you are not familiar with some of these sports. Despite the misleading explanation in the response, Goalball, New Age Kurling, Panathlon, Polybat are all aimed at disabled young people (or for ALL young people, irrespective of their abilities).

We should not let the almost inevitable explosion of rage from the Daily Mail and its minions, before someone explains about these sports, distract us from a much more important issue: the remarkable progress that has been made by advocates in ensuring that all young people have access to sport and healthy competition, regardless of their ability.

It was only a couple of decades ago when disabled people were kept to the margins of sport. The trajectory from that position to Hugh Robertson's statement is remarkable.

I await the uproar with glee!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Cricket versus Barbarism

I'd like to start with a quiz. Who said this?
“Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket ..; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen.”
I will reveal the answer at the end of this entry.

The stimulus for my mention of cricket is an interesting article in the magazine All About Cricket. The author, Safi Thind, reports on the emergence of a number of initiatives that have used cricket as a vehicle to combat problems like misbehaviour at school and youth delinquency.

For example,
"StreetChance "aims to increase aspiration, promote mutual respect, and enhance relationships with others, including schools, police and the wider community by providing structured coaching and competitive opportunities for young people."

Another charity - Cricket for Change - gives some clues about the selection of cricket as the means to these ends:
We see cricket, because of its history throughout the world, as being uniquely able to transcend the major urban racial groups, black, white and Asian and because it's a non-contact game, is also uniquely able to help young people with a disability share in the benefits of competitive team sport.

We believe that cricket can be used to make a positive impact on the lives of individuals and communities and for the last 30 years we have used our unique cricket programmes to help young people, in particular, make positive choices about their lives and to help them feel good about themselves.
Cricket, above all other sports that emerged from Victorian Britain (which is, let's face it, almost all sports) has the reputation for developing decent behaviour.

This was the view of the philosopher David Stove. Cricket, he wrote, “requires gentlemanliness, and teaches it”
. And such gentlemanliness is expressed both in the nature of the game (and its often extreme delays of gratification) and its spirit. In other words, cricket teaches decent behaviour by providing an environment in which such behaviour is practiced.

Of course, it is not difficult to undermine a simple equation between cricket and civility: bodyline, ball-tampering, match fixing, and so on. But that the vast majority of cricket matches manage to maintain an over-riding air of good manners and good spirits - even at the very highest levels - does suggest that these schemes are on to something.

And the source of the claim that
cricket civilises people that I quoted at the start of this entry? It was that great humanitarian Robert Mugabe.

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.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Sport Science - good, bad and bogus

The sport sciences have garnered a huge body of evidence regarding the measurement and improvement of performance. Television programmes reporting on the preparation of elite players for events like the 2012 Olympic Games show them in laboratories, where scientists in lab coats connect them to tubes and cables and the ubiquitous machines that go 'ping'.

The scientific foundations of modern training and measurement are simply taken for granted by those involved in sport. Personally, I am not so sure.

Dave Collins (formerly Performance Director at UK Athletics and now Professor at the University of Central Lancashire) and I have recently written a paper for the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics called 'Scienciness' and the allure of second-hand strategy in talent identification and development. We argue that senior sports coaches and administrators are too quickly impressed by apparently 'sciency' looking strategies and practices which, on closer inspection, are really not very good science at all.

Of course, not all sport science is dodgy; the great majority is perfectly respectable. A problem, though, is that the people who actually use the research are rarely able to distinguish between good and bad science.

Without an understanding of science, most of us turn to good-old-fashioned common sense, which is probably a good bet most of the time, but occasionally is
paradoxical and surprising and quite the opposite of common sense. And there are countless examples of bogus ideas in sport that seem common sensical; consider talent identification: the importance of spotting talent young; the need to identifying children with the correct body shape for specific sports; the necessity of focusing on one sport early. All of these ideas are widely believed to be true, because they seem like common sense. Yet they are all, more or less, nonsense.


One of the most fascinating examples of the battle between science and non-science is reported in Michael Lewis' Moneyball, which has just been released as a film starring .. [drum roll] .. Brad Pitt. The book / film focuses on Major League Baseball, possibly the most evidence-laden sport in the world, and its reliance on a combination of the wisdom of aged insiders and common sense-based, sciency statistics. According to Lewis, the statistics used by even the most elite teams to evaluate player success and, vitally, to identify the most talented recruits, were simply not relevant for the modern game.



Moneyball
also tells of the remarkable success of the Oakland A's, a relatively poor team that somehow managed to compete successfully against much wealthier and established teams. Their secret? They used informed statistics to identify the real key predictors of playing success. So, while their opponents continued to assess players' potential and performance using common sense measures like batting averages, the A's turned to on-base percentages and slugging percentages. These scores were not only more valid predictors of playing success, but they also allowed the team to buy much more economically.

The events told in Moneyball took place some years ago, and the other Major League teams were forced to change, albeit reluctantly. It may be the new film will stimulate interest in the issue of good, bad and bogus sport science, and - who knows - perhaps it will contribute to the sport science education of coaches and administrators.

[A recent issue of the Financial Times has a fascinating discussion between Michael Lewis and Billy Beane, the man behind the A's statistical revolution]