Following on from Britain’s record-breaking Olympic performance, Gordon Brown has issued a call to bring back competitive sports in schools. Some will be surprised to learn that it has ever been away; but then one feels that this is just one more example of New Labour’s easy acceptance of the tabloid view of the world.
Whatever the cause, the substance is clear. Thousands more sports teachers are to be trained. More money for school sports. The time spent on sport in schools to be expanded from two to five hours a week. The result, according to Brown: better opportunities for sport, fewer smokers, less obesity (not that any of this is really about competitive sport – but again one has to respect the tabloid myth).
Sport and ideology
What fascinates me about this is the stark contrast with other areas where – rather more objectively – our school system isn’t really delivering. I’m thinking in particular of music, and of Britain’s atrocious track record in learning languages. So why sport?
At one level, the cynic might suggest that the combination of easy populism and the public school ethic is uniquely attractive to New Labour – and, on top of that, there is Brown’s rather desperate attempt to forge a British identity.
But there’s more to it than that, I think. The salient feature of New Labour’s approach to education seems to me to be its economism. Where once Labour politicians talked about the development of the individual – Ellen Wilkinson, Labour’s first education secretary, talked of her aspiration to a “Third Programme society”, in which the cultural riches that had been the preserve of a privileged minority, would be available to all – now the rhetoric is all of economic competitiveness, of developing skills. One can easily see New Labour’s approach to schools as being places where children sit in uniform behind desks, being prepared for a lifetime of sitting in uniform behind desks, obedient and well-drilled.
And the language of sport is strikingly similar to that of free market capitalism. Indeed, many of the more desperate cliches of the workplace – “picking up the ball and running with it”, to take one – are lifted directly from sport. The discipline, the rule systems and the urge to victory are all there; it’s also a very masculine, testosterone-fuelled vision of the world, and I think that is all of a piece with what New Labour has come to stand for. More school sport, the Olympics in London – it all fits very well with an agenda, conscious or not, of turning us all into disciplined and focussed consumers and workers.