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Expert comment: What’s in a game? Sport, education and social mobility in 2018

Dr Joseph Maslen, Lecturer in Education Studies, explores the language of sporting triumph and its impact on education.

The triumphal power of sports metaphors is always striking. I noticed this again last month, when Australia beat England in the final medals table for the Commonwealth Games held in the Australian Gold Coast. As the tally was confirmed, the local Gold Coast Bulletin newspaper carried an image of an Australian kangaroo with boxing gloves trouncing a bruised, dazed British bulldog, with the tagline: GOD SAVE THEIR TEAM – Little Britain: Poms pummelled as Aussies collect record medal haul.

The claim was something of a stretch; taken as a whole, Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) would have come top in number of medals overall, albeit not golds. Indeed, the signature moment of the Games was perhaps the English netball team’s Hollywood-style victory over the Australian home favourites. The ‘roses’ beat the ‘diamonds’ with a re-taken shot in the very last second of the game!

Nonetheless, the overall performance was certainly a setback for Team England, with their share of the overall medals down from 21 per cent four years ago to 16.2 per cent this time around. It also – slipping back from England-speak to Britain-speak – goes against the long-term narrative of Anglo-British sporting renaissance that began after Britain’s solitary gold at the 1996 Olympics. From that low-point, with heavy investment from the then-new National Lottery, a targeted focus on certain (largely hi-tech sitting-down) sports, and an application of a (foreign?) win-at-all-costs mentality led by tough-nut Performance Directors, Britain has charged its way to greater and greater feats of sporting glory.

However, I am not writing this as a sports expert. Rather, the thought I want to raise is about the seductive power of sport, with its metaphors of glory, in shaping our understanding of other spheres such as education. I pursue this in my new article, published in Journal of Education Policy, under the title: Cracking the Code: The Social Mobility Commission and Education Policy Discourse. A main conclusion in this paper is that the Government’s Social Mobility Commission uses the metaphors around sporting success to wrap its agenda in the glamour of national pride. To depict what it believes needs to be done it borrows from Britain’s sporting success, and particularly the philosophy of ‘marginal gains’ used by the ultra-successful British cycling team. At the top of its podium, celebrated by the Government as winners of the education game, are the most sharp-elbowed schools, the school leaders who are the most competitive and ruthless, and those few pupils from humble backgrounds who rise to the top of society.

Because sport provides us with its romantic tale of triumph against the odds, it obscures what this may mean in reality to education policy-makers. Games have winners but they also have losers. For the minority to collect the prize of social mobility, others have to get ‘pummelled’ – or at least they do if the wider social arrangements that structure the game of educational success remain unchanged.

Cracking the Code: The Social Mobility Commission and Education Policy Discourse is now available with the Journal of Education Policy. Read more here.  

Published on 24/05/2018