Knowing Your Boundaries

“I pay respect to wisdom not to strength.”

The quote is from C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life; the words are those of Loki, the Norse trickster god. In this part-autobiography Lewis described his experiences at Wyvern College, a pseudonym for Malvern College, the boys’ public school in Mercia. School sports were something he always found difficult to explain. “If sport is so popular,” he once enquired, “why is it compulsory?”

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, school. It can be remembered as fun and delight. Or as misery and trauma. Often the difference comes down to the legacy left by individual teachers. To micro-manage outcomes from the centre may meet targets, but it is unlikely to produce well-rounded citizens.

Yet London politicians, hyper-ventilating after a fortnight of Olympic triumphs and vanities, do indeed believe they know best. Britain’s top toffs, Dave and Boris, have been trying to out-run each other on the political playing field. Cameron has promised a führer directive that all primary schools in England (& Cornwall) shall teach competitive sports (excluding only the free schools and academies, which are now way beyond any meaningful accountability for their mis-use of public money). There are two things wrong with this. One is the solution itself and the other is the way the solution is being imposed.

Solution to what? That is the question. Why do schools need to teach competitive sports? Physical activity is good for health, that’s true, Indian dancing more so than boxing. But competition, taken to its extreme where concern for the welfare of others is eliminated, has historically been the root of all evil. The Tories love it because it undermines the co-operative instinct, creating a climate of dehumanising aggression that’s good for a state of permanent war, whether military or economic. The sporting ideal of excellence coupled with respect is routinely abused from that source. Fortunately, co-operation always has its rebels who rise above such nonsense. They can be seen in any school football match, standing idly around the edges of a muddy field, cold and bored, while the biggest boys in the year fight over the ball. Competitive sports have nothing to offer them. It isn’t that they have failed physical education; it’s that physical education has failed them. Pouring public money into school sports might produce Olympic gold in 20 years’ time but it will not produce a nation of 50 million Olympians. That the needs of the sporting elite and the needs of most others are radically different is a point that London politicians are happy to ignore. Sport for all is a wonderful idea; elite sport for all is an oxymoron.

As decentralists we are still more passionately involved in the other question: of why Cameron should have the power that he does to decree the curriculum in English community schools. He doesn’t own them. He doesn’t manage them: that’s the job of head teachers and their boards of governors, drawn from the local community to which they are accountable. It isn’t properly the job of the local education authority, unless schools were to agree voluntarily to pool curriculum development. It isn’t the job of the Education Secretary either; indeed, his entire department could be abolished with no ill effects, and many positive ones. And it certainly isn’t the job of the Prime Minister to confuse leadership with arrogant interference in the jobs of others. Use the rhetoric of localism if you really mean it, and if you don’t, then stop imagining we’ll think you a decent bloke for cherry-picking whatever issues play best in the tabloid press.