Anthony Seldon: Let the Games inspire a new vision for schools

State schools may lack the facilities and length of day but why accept the status quo?

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Schools re-open in a month. Two weeks today, they will receive their A-level results, and in three weeks today their GCSEs. Heads and principals will already be musing away at what they are going to be saying in their pre-term staff meetings. What place will they find in their homilies for the Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad from this magnificent sporting and artistic summer?

How will schools be different because of the triumphs yesterday of Bradley Wiggins, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning – and doubtless many others in the coming days? Or because of the vision of Britain that Danny Boyle gave us in his stunning opening ceremony? Will it be back to Gradgrind as usual, with schooling weighed under by facts, tests and exams, or will our education system somehow be enhanced and transformed by what has happened in Britain during the school holidays?

Many heads in their opening addresses will feel under pressure to major on the summer's exam results and their school's league table position. Their teachers will sit more or less uncomplainingly through long PowerPoint displays of the performance of pupils, departments, and year groups.

This is all fine – up to a point. Schools need to concentrate on exams, and far too many have not done well enough for their children in the past. Lives and opportunities have been squandered because of poor teaching and unfocused schools. The Government is right to demand that schools concentrate on academic attainment. It will be Michael Gove's, and perhaps the Government's, most enduring legacy.

But as even the Government has to admit, education is about much more than the passing of exams. It will be a tragedy if schools from September were to be identical to the way they were up to July. The Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad should be the catalysts for the profoundest shake-up of the whole nature and purpose of schools. Otherwise we run the risk of squandering the Olympic legacy.

Everything depends on our vision of education. If we believe that it is merely about the training of the intellect, then narrowly focused schools will be the inevitable result. Schools will concentrate on the passing of exams (which, we may note, is very different from engendering academic curiosity through scholarship) and exam success will remain the Holy Grail.

But if we have a broader vision of what it means to be human, and to acknowledge that our humanity includes our sporting prowess, our artistic faculties, our moral sensibilities and spiritual quest, to say nothing of the development of good character prized since the ancient Greeks, then we would wish our schools to educate the whole child. Children from less-privileged backgrounds depend even more on their schools to give them this extracurricular enrichment.

The funny thing is that those schools which offer excellent all-round education, such as the Ripley St Thomas High School in Lancaster, or Thomas Telford School in Shropshire, also excel academically. School is a once-and-forever opportunity for the young to develop their talents, and what is not identified and nurtured by the age of 16, and usually long before, is likely to remain dormant for life.

Howard Gardner, the Harvard Professor, says that we have not one but a whole variety of intelligences, and the sovereign responsibility of schools is to identify and nurture all of them. If we do not offer this breadth in our schools, we patronise children and deny them the opportunities of the rich heritage that is the birthright of every child in Britain.

Why should extensive provision for all in the arts, across the sports, in adventure and character education be largely the preserve of the better-off children who attend independent schools? State schools may lack the facilities, the length in the school day and the staff expertise to offer this same breadth of education. But why should we accept the status quo? The school days can be lengthened, as some academies have done, independent schools and others can help with facilities, and skilled volunteers can help run out-of-class activities.

The Government is playing its part, promoting Combined Cadet Forces in state schools, and championing National Citizen Service, which this summer has placed 30,000 young people from widely different backgrounds in summer camps which offer them challenging personal and social development. My own school, Wellington College, is hosting 1,000 such young people, in association with Future Foundations. The hope is that the newly opened Chobham Academy, within the Olympic Village, will itself play host to NCS summer camps from next summer, working with the Legacy List (the post-Olympic Games charity for Arts and Education). But government needs to go further and tell schools that extra-curricular activities should be offered widely to all, and that academic standards will not be jeopardised, but enhanced by doing so.

The vision and inspiration that heads could offer their staff and pupils at the start of the coming academic year, inspired by the Olympics, could blow away and delight their teachers and students. May our whole school system be re-forged in steel by these Games.

Dr Anthony Seldon is Master of Wellington College

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