An Uncommon Experience

Last Tuesday morning at Portcullis House. I’d been called to give evidence in front of the Education Select Committee as part of their School Sport inquiry. There were nerves. I was anxious to contribute effectively to the Inquiry and to present the evidence from United Learning academies and independent schools effectively. Anxious, too, because being invited to appear in front of the Select Committee is an honour, but one which, in perception at least, was to take me far out of my comfort zone. With the House of Commons opposite, this was indeed to be an uncommon experience.

The purpose of the Select Committee enquiry is to look at:

  • The impact and effectiveness of current Government policy and expenditure on increasing sports in schools;
  • The scope, appropriateness and likelihood of success of the Government’s plans for a school sports legacy from London 2012;
  • The impact so far of London 2012 on the take-up of competitive sports in schools;
  • What further measures should be taken to ensure a sustainable and effective legacy in school sports following London 2012.

United Learning had been called to give oral evidence because we had already supplied written evidence to the Committee. In particular, we felt that we were of interest to the Committee for three reasons:

  • We could represent a range of schools across the country;
  • Our schools include both state academies and independent schools;
  • In our written evidence we had referred to the United Learning Panel which had surveyed all students in the Group about their attitudes to sport following the Olympics.

So my role was to tell the Committee about some of the successes our schools are enjoying in physical education. Armed with a plethora of examples of outstanding work, I gave the Committee an insight into the sporting opportunities available to our pupils across the country.

The first question that directly referred to United Learning was in relation to the findings of the United Learning Panel which we had mentioned in our written submission. The key, relevant findings that we had submitted were:

  • Six in ten students said watching the Olympics had encouraged them to participate in more sport and 69% said they were going to try new sports because of London 2012;
  • 86% said that London 2012 convinced them that anything is possible if they work hard enough;
  • 83% said London 2012 made them rethink their attitudes towards disability (50% a great deal, 33% a little);
  • 62% of students said that London 2012 made them want to volunteer.

The Committee’s question was straightforward: “have the 60% of students who said they wanted to participate in more sport actually done so?”. In responding, I alluded to what is called the “intention-behaviour gap”. As psychologist Julia Allan explains:

“Behavioural intentions do not reliably lead to changes in behaviour (Sheeran, 2002; Conner & Armitage, 1998; Godin & Kok, 1996), and the substantial ‘intention-behaviour gap’ remains a major focus of research in health psychology.”

In exercise, diet, health choices and many other aspects of life, research tells us that it is one thing to have a good intention; quite another to translate that into behaviours. That is one of the reasons why United Learning are trialling the role that I currently hold: to support schools in enabling their young people to turn these sporting intentions into sporting behaviours. Quick fixes would be relatively easy to implement. In my visits to our schools, it is evident that they all have a deep-seated determination to create enduring behaviour changes in their students. Moreover, they are on a relentless drive to achieve this ambition. In doing so, they are both reflecting inwardly on their own practice and looking outwardly to learn from others in the Group. As Estelle Morris wrote earlier this year:

“Interdependence is as important as independence”

It is in relation to this that the second question pertaining to our evidence came through:

“Are there any lessons about competitive sport that independent schools in United Learning can teach academies? And vice versa?”

In his address at the Paralympic Opening Ceremony, Stephen Hawking explained that the Paralympic Games were about transforming our perceptions of the world. He said:

“We are all different…but we share the same human spirit.”

It may be a stretch to bring this analogy to the difference between state and independent schools in relation to school sport, but a couple of aspects ring true. Firstly, there is the issue of perceptions. Secondly, what we have in common is far greater than that which distinguishes us.

For the purposes of the inquiry, I was able present some headline findings from my visits to schools in my first six weeks in post. That is, the appetite for working collaboratively across state and independent schools is huge. This would support the case put forward by Head Teacher John Tomsett in his recent excellent blog “This much I know about…bridging the independent-state school divide” in which he remarks:

“Together we provide our students and staff with great experiences – educationally, culturally and socially – which break down any divisions that might exist between us.”

It was from an earlier blog from John that I found the “Tipping Point Leadership” article by Kim and Wauborgne. In it they present the sport-related model of four hurdles needing to be overcome in order to bring about “rapid, dramatic, and lasting change with limited resources”. From my experience so far discussing PE and school sport with the state and independent schools in United Learning , there is no cognitive hurdle to break through, nor a motivational hurdle to jump. Hopefully, this Select Committee (and its cross-party make-up) will go some way to knocking over the political hurdles that frustrate the profession so much, especially when they feel more like high jump bars rather than hurdles. Which would leave only the resource hurdle remaining.

Although I am still doing my school visits, the emerging, and unsurprising distinction between state schools and independent schools lies in the realm of resource. This is especially stark in relation to school sport. Yes, there are cultural differences. Yes, where students board especially, there are advantages in terms of the time available to develop sporting potential further. And yes, in some but by no means all situations, there are better facilities within which to work on that potential. Although further evidence needs to be gathered before being submitted to the Committee, for now the most striking advantage that our independent schools have over our academies lies in the amount of human resource they can call upon to deliver school sport.

Schools within both sectors in our Group have some exceptional PE teachers and outstanding subject leaders. The curriculum PE experience of young people in both sectors is good or outstanding in the majority of cases and we are determined that it should be outstanding regardless of which institution within the Group a young person attends. But when it comes to having a cadre of colleagues who are willing, or expected to contribute to school sport, there is a chasm.

Where some academies are struggling to appoint a teacher in a core subject, some of our independent schools are able to recruit teachers who bring not only their subject expertise, but an additional strength in sport (as just one example). One independent school has several other curriculum subject teachers as “heads of” specific sports, let alone “helping out”. Those colleagues who helped us out when I was a Head of PE in a state school were gold dust and we were incredibly grateful to them. But we were wholly reliant on their goodwill. There certainly was no expectation.

In terms of the committee’s specific question regarding what lessons can be learned, there is certainly a debate to be had about the amount of time given to activities within the curriculum. As Ofsted found in their recent report:

“In a small minority of secondary schools, including some sports colleges where PE was outstanding, the balance between maximising participation and generating elite performance had been achieved and sport was played to a very high standard.”

One of our ambitions is to support all United Learning schools in getting that balance right. It is such a difficult balance to achieve, one laced with philosophical conundrums and logistical quandaries…notwithstanding the additional hurdle of resource. I’m sure the breadth/depth debate is one that will be had over time as each school grapples with the issue within its own unique context. But it might well be worth reminding the Education Select Committee of what Maria Miller promised to the School Games Conference in October 2012:

“I’ll leave no stone unturned in looking at new ways to support schools with the firepower they need to strengthen both PE and sport.”

It could be argued that it is not firepower so much as ‘man’power that is needed.

In this particular aspect of my role, I aspire to what Laura McInerney outlines in her take on instruction rounds as used in the medical profession (from ‘Instructional rounds in Action’ by John E. Roberts):

  • Describe what I see
  • Analyse patterns
  • Predict the impact
  • Recommend what should happen next

This current phase is all about listening, learning and questioning. The independent schools that I have spent time with thus far could not have been more helpful, open-minded or actively engaged with their local clubs and communities. My perceptions are already changing. For as with the Select Committee experience itself, I am entering a world hitherto unfamiliar to me. It is, indeed, an uncommon experience where the learning curve is as steep as the mountains currently being devoured in the Giro d’Italia. The challenge is significant, but when we have in common committed, skilful professionals who share the greater mission of bringing out ‘the best in everyone’ through PE and sport, there is every chance that we can deliever.

Collectively. Collaboratively. Certainly.