Remember the Olympics? It was a rather special time in the United Kingdom.
Throughout the Olympic and Paralympic events we witnessed some remarkable sporting achievements. Team GB enabled the nation to celebrate in a way that they probably hadn’t celebrated since the glorious 1966 Football World Cup win. There was an incredible feel-good factor that permeated into other areas of life.
There seemed a quiet calm around bustling cities. A general sense of wellbeing emerged despite the appalling weather we experienced last year – something that normally impacts significantly and negatively on the British psyche. People actually spoke to one another on public transport in London; a very unusual experience that took some time to get used to.
Our nation seemed to be waking up. We seemed to finally realise that we were indeed “one nation” irrespective of whether we lived in Llangollen, Dunfermline, Antrim or Exeter. We appeared to be shedding the old Thatcherite principle of insular selfishness for a more cooperative and considerate appreciation of one another. There was such a thing as society after all.
People talked hopefully of a future society. We must do this, we must do that. We can’t lose this feeling of celebration. We need to ensure that there is appropriate funding for sport. We need to make sure we are respectful and mindful of those who have physical and mental disabilities. We need to be very clear what outcomes we want as a legacy of these Games.
And then, it appears, we awoke from our dream and got back to life as it was before the Olympics.
Government cuts in the spending for school sports, be it to fund the School Sports Partnership or to maintain school playing fields, remained and continued. The Building Schools for the Future programme had already been slashed, and the environment for learning, including open spaces, seemed less relevant. And we stopped talking to one another on the Underground.
On the weekend, there were some sensible and disparaging commentaries on the lack of a real sporting legacy from the Olympic Games.
Dame Tessa Jowell, who played a significant role in bringing the Games to London, has asked for an urgent cross-party review of sport in schools.
“These findings are very worrying but not surprising. But it is not too late to rescue the legacy,” she said. “This government has got itself into a terrible bind by shutting down a world-class system of School Sport Partnerships and now pride is the only thing that is stopping them putting things back on course.
“This really is urgent and I believe my Labour colleagues would be more than happy to sign up to a cross-party agreement that would find a solution.”
Stephen Twigg, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, is quoted in the Observer newspaper as saying,
“Six months on, the Olympic legacy is in tatters. We’ve seen partnerships that enabled primary schoolchildren to do competitive sport scrapped and the number of pupils doing two hours of sport a week collapse from nine in 10 under Labour to half now.
“Labour would get Ofsted to inspect school sport, enable teaching assistants to become PE teachers, and ensure parents know how much sport their children get at school. Headteachers say the Labour government was making progress, but it’s been lost.”
The government says that it is doing something about the Olympics and a sporting legacy and that an announcement will happen “in due course”.
Quite frankly, that’s not good enough. Six months have passed since the Olympics started and peoples’ memories wear thin. Action should have been taken at the time. No – action should have been taken prior to the Olympics to ensure that sense of wellbeing and collegiality was sustained. That bright hopefulness and togetherness should have been captured at the moment that people were feeling it most. That time is now lost but it isn’t irreversible.
The issue about school sports is important. Concern about obesity levels in this country is quite right but sport alone is not going to tackle this emerging epidemic, just as Jamie Oliver’s transformation of school dinners was not going to prevent an increasing national waistline on its own.
It’s not just cross-party discussions that are needed but cross-departmental dialogue too. This simply doesn’t happen enough. For example, there has been a recent mandate from the Department of Health that states that every local authority should have a statutory Health and Wellbeing Board. This board has statutory duties. Yet, with the demise in local authority coordination and control of education, there is no means to get school leaders round the table to participate in this group, and neither is there a complementary statute coming from the Department of Education to enforce their involvement in a Health and Wellbeing Board, despite every school having a statutory duty to promote the wellbeing of all pupils.
We need action, and joint action now – but we must also be mindful of what we are aiming to do. Not everyone is going to be a potential Olympic athlete. Are we really going to concentrate all our efforts on elitism or are we intending to engage young and old people in sport generally? Or should legacy be bigger than sport alone?
The wonderment of the Olympics was not just in the sporting achievements that took place. Sitting in a stadium packed to the brim with 80,000 people shouting excited encouragement to a range of athletes that they had perhaps never heard of before, from a variety of countries, whose physical disabilities had never been seen en masse before, was an extremely humbling and inspiring experience.
How are we planning for this sort of collective, considerate behaviour?
The legacy of the Olympics should not just be about sporting “attainment”. The spectacle of the Olympics was as much about the positivity and a sense of togetherness that ensued. The legacy should be about capturing that “natural high” that enveloped the nation during the summer of 2012.
Sad but true, we need to plan for people to talk to one another. We need to dispel the myth that people shouldn’t exchange a nod of the head or a smile or even a word when they are travelling together, unknown to one another. We should consider how we give children and young people confidence to communicate, and think. We should be planning what we should do to ensure that people with disabilities are never again looked upon in an awkward way, by an embarrassed able-bodied person who doesn’t know how to deal with difference.
Ed Miliband talks of “one nation”. He would do well to talk to people who were fortunate enough to experience the “one nation” of the Olympics in London. What was it that made it special? What is that that they want to see as a legacy? What is it that is going to make a sustainable difference to the wellbeing of the people?
We would guess that the real legacy and the real hope that people saw during the Olympics was the unity that came from it, and it is this that we should be planning to sustain as a real legacy of 2012.