3 trophies with ribbons on a table

What a performance!

There’s a sea change happening in the world of sport and I wonder how long it will be before it arrives in schools?

The new buzz word is ‘performance’. Or perhaps ‘performance!’ Schools have been in the business of improving performance since the league tables came in and have even become quite team-aware in the process. I have come across a school where the English department was forbidden to teach a tough long text for GCSE because the kids could score just as highly on a shorter, easier book and, with less reading to do, would have more time to spend on tougher subjects. That’s whole-school thinking, though I would lament the loss of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for ‘Of Mice and Men’ any day.

Sport has always – obviously – been about performance, so what has changed that it’s now in the news? Well, performance seems to have come into focus, as if the sporting world –  in which medals matter for national pride and individual lives are transformed by the considerable wealth and media careers which can follow sporting success – has come to the realisation that ‘performance’ seems to have some separate existence worth nurturing. Indeed, fix ‘performance’ and you are home and dry, possibly dangling medals, lucrative sponsorship deals and a job for life TV commentating.

I am intrigued by the sudden burgeoning of something that I caught a glimpse of some years ago and which now seems to have ‘arrived’. If I find it trumpeted in The Times as the driving force behind “major changes at FA”, then it has definitely arrived. And it will be fascinating to see how far schools may decide to tread the same path – or run on the same track, as the case may be.

My glimpse of the future was at a schools’ association conference addressed by Dave Brailsford – he of the ‘tiny change, big effect’ training of the UK cycling team to unexpected success in the London Olympics. He offered a candid insight into the making of champions and champion teams. In particular, he spoke of making small changes – marginal gains – to produce much improved performance. The Olympics proved his point.

It was a seductive theory, but I had my doubts. While the theory of making small, do-able adjustments to anything that could affect an athlete’s performance was wonderfully logical, undeniably successful and appeared portable – “What change can I make to 4G’s Latin lessons so they all get a C in GCSE this year?” – I recall the speech as also referring to the performance manager having to be ruthless. If an athlete really would not make the grade, he was out. Eviction of the weakest might well improve the Latin performance of 4G, but that’s not quite what schools do, is it?

The cold-blooded chasing of success for the team at whatever cost contrasts with what I believe of schools: we care about each child, about realising their potential whatever their equipment, intellectual or sporting.

Or do we? Actually, many a school has enshrined an elitism in sport of which they would be ashamed in academic subjects. Malcolm Gladwell pointed out the dramatic preponderance of autumn-born individuals in top teams, ascribing this to the fact that they had been the oldest, tallest, strongest in their year right from the start, so they got selected for teams, which played more often than mere classes, and got extra coaching as well. Thereafter it’s a charmed path to elite team playing in school itself and whole sporting careers can follow – yes, with medals and money and all the rest. This is surely unfairness built into the system, though it’s hard to see it changing soon. Watch this space, perhaps.

Maybe one day there will be separate ‘leagues’ in schools for summer-born teams, and fewer ‘Kes’ moments of humiliation for children who are simply younger than their peers and pay a price for it the whole of their school lives.

‘Performance’ is in the news at the FA with reports of Dave Reddin, “after his success with England rugby, playing key roles in the 2003 World Cup and with Team GB at the 2012 Olympic Games … becoming an increasingly influential figure at the Football Association, shaping the future of the national game and the national team.” He has been head of performance services since 2014, before which he had never worked in football. The lesson? You don’t need to be sport specific, performance is a stand-alone concept and it is portable. And if it can go from sport to sport, then maybe from sector to sector. Today sport, tomorrow schools?

The Times tells us the FA’s new way of working is now “dominated by that word: ‘performance’”. Reddin’s own title will be head of team strategy and performance services, under whom the head of performance analysis and insight and head of physical performance and nutrition will – presumably – perform. Apparently, Reddin believes in so-called ‘marginal gains’. It’s apparently about attention to detail, even – you will love this – “making sure players sleep on the right type of mattresses and pillows, use the right sunscreen and even have the correct colour of contact lenses”. Wow.

I am reminded of hearing from boarders in the school of which I was head that they had to get to school early on return day, just to find the best mattress on their corridor and swap it for the probably lumpy one on their bed. I had no idea there would be discernible differences. Did I take mattresses for granted? Absolutely. And I remember the battle over funds to renew them. I do not recall anyone in the senior management team (as it was then – ‘leadership’ came later) discussing the impact on the students’ academic performance of sleepless nights on lumpy beds.

In my own school days, would I have done better in maths if we hadn’t been taught in a dark subterranean room known as ‘the coffin’? Or if the teacher had not bounced chalk off our heads? Indeed, I can look back on some easy targets for marginal gains.

As a timetabler, did I serve all subjects well? A colleague once worked out that every subject wanted its top classes on third lesson Wednesday, please. She was a mathematician, and swore results were affected by last two lessons Friday (everyone too tired) or first thing Monday (ditto) or before lunch (too hungry to concentrate) or after lunch (too full/tired again). She had a point, so if you want marginal gains in some subjects, consider the room and the timetable as things you could fix if you choose.

Don’t you also love the language? It’s almost a marginal gain all on its own. I would rather have a head of pastoral performance than a head of pastoral care. Indeed, adopting the terminology of ‘performance’ across the school looks rather attractive to me: head of financial performance, head of student performance, head of staff performance – yes, really. Somehow the idea of making things better lives in the very term. It’s active – let’s do something! Change something! Measure the impact. Change something else! Far more jazzy than being an old-school head of department.

Tiny changes, dramatic improvement. Who could resist?

This article originally appeared on the Independent Today website at http://ie-today.co.uk/Article/what-a-performance

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