Friday, July 20, 2007

Children denied the joys of competition

On Saturday, the river Thames at Henley was a picture of grey. Contented, fulfilled, cheery, but undeniably grey. And occasionally bald. It was the Henley Veterans' Regatta, a rowing competition held the week after the grand Royal occasion, after the corporate hospitality marquees had gone, the picnic tables been folded away and the jazz bands packed up their instruments. Here rowers in their forties, fifties, sixties and in several cases seventies wheezed and sweated their way down the very same course the elite athletes had so recently taken, persuading themselves for a moment that they were still contenders

Everywhere you looked, the joys of competition were in evidence. It wasn't the winning - though for a few that provided a singular pleasure - but the fact they could still take part that was the point. The clutch of nerves gripping the stomach at the start line, the adrenaline rush of the first few strokes, the long haul up the most picturesque sporting track in the world: it made them feel more alive. For these people, sporting competition had been a vital part of their being for as long as they can remember.

I couldn't help comparing the energy, the vibrancy, the camaraderie with another event I attended: a non-competitive team morning at a primary school. Emphatically this was not a sports day: sport, for the head teacher, needed to be eradicated in all its forms, as pernicious an evil as sexism and racism. Sport represented competition at its most corrupting: trying to beat someone else at games was, to this head, morally indefensible. And so the children were obliged to stand in line, hanging around waiting to do things like tip water into a bucket or sort plastic bricks into colour-coded lines. Running was banned (someone might hurt himself) and winning didn't happen.

As the head passed between the rows of children congratulating herself that she had discovered the root of youthful nirvana, every child she passed wanted to know one thing: who was winning. "Nobody wins here," she'd trill, apparently oblivious to the groans her every remark solicited. I have never seen such a listless, bored bunch of children. Those veterans at Henley may have been 10 times older, but they had 10 times the spark of these seven-year-olds. What these children wanted was competition.

They didn't know about all those long-term, beneficial side-effects the old rowers had enjoyed, they just wanted to pitch themselves against their peers. Yet they were being denied the one thing they craved by an educational philosophy that made no sense.

The image that haunted me was of an 11-year-old girl, who looked like Denise Lewis must have done at that age, all balance, grace and legs like a gazelle, being scolded by the head teacher for running, beautifully and at sprint speed, during one of the challenges. "We don't do that sort of thing here," she was told, as if what she were doing were a social embarrassment, like picking her nose in public.

Far from offering encouragement to help nurture her natural ability, here was the girl's educational mentor telling her that her skill was worthless. All this happened not in the grounds of some expensive boarding school established by utopian loons for the offspring of the Bohemian, but at a bog-standard, mainstream north London primary school.

My memories were stirred this week when Gordon Brown announced his wholehearted support for competitive sport in schools. Of all the things the new man has said that we can cheer (the end of the super-casino among them), this is the most important.

Yet the gap between prime ministerial proposal and reality can be as wide as the space between that head teacher's ears. The non-competitive team challenge I witnessed took place at the tail end of John Major's watch, when the PM was waxing on about warm beer on the boundary, even as great swathes of his education system were treating all sports as if they were a dangerous perversion.

Brown needs to ensure competition is given room on the curriculum, that those many great teachers who appreciate its value are supported, that the facilities are developed in which it can be practised. Proposals, initiatives, study documents are not enough. We have allowed almost a whole generation to be schooled without sport, marooning them on the sofa, sagged down by their ever-expanding waistbands. The next generation must rediscover the spirit of their grandparents competing at Henley; and that requires actions, not words.


Corrupt "backroom deal" in British health system

The Department of Health did “a backroom deal” with a private company that broke Treasury guidance, could not demonstrate value for money and lacked clear benefits, the Public Accounts Committee has concluded. The deal, to create a joint venture between the health information company Dr Foster and the department’s information centre, resulted in a loss of 2.8 million pounds in its first year instead of the small profit predicted.

Last week the director of the information centre, Professor Denise Lievesley, who was responsible for signing off on the deal, resigned after only two years in the job. She claimed that it was the right time for her to pursue other activities, including her forthcoming presidency of the International Statistical Institute. No connection to the imminent PAC report was acknowledged.

The PAC is not critical of Dr Foster, which was set up to make better use of data produced by the NHS. But it does question whether the agreement was good value for taxpayers’ money. Edward Leigh, MP, the chairman of the committee, said: “By pursuing its backroom deal with Dr Foster LLP, the Department of Health failed in its duty to be open to Parliament and the taxpayer. “There was no fair and competitive tendering competition, as laid down in public sector procurement guidelines. And Treasury guidance on joint ventures between public and private sectors was ignored. Instead, the deal was handed to Dr Foster on a plate. “Without the competitive pressure inherent in a tender process, the Department’s Information Centre simply cannot demonstrate that it paid the best price for its 50 per cent share of the joint venture. Certainly, the 12 million that it paid, 7.6 million of which went straight into the pockets of Dr Foster’s shareholders, was between a half and a third higher than its financial advisers’ evaluation.”

The permanent secretary of the department, Hugh Taylor, told the committee that while there were other companies working in health informatics, Dr Foster stood out “in terms of its national profile and the range of its products”. But the committee did not consider this an adequate excuse for ignoring due process and paying over the odds.


More BBC crookedness: "The British Broadcasting Corporation suspended all phone-in and interactive contests on Wednesday after an investigation exposed several incidents in which competition winners were faked. The BBC, which has been battered by revelations about rigged contests and doctored footage, said an internal inquiry had found that "a small number of production staff ... have passed themselves off as viewers and listeners" on radio and TV shows. BBC Director-General Mark Thompson said six new cases had been uncovered in addition to a previously known incident involving the children's TV show "Blue Peter". "We must now swiftly put our house in order," he said. Thompson said phone-in contests on radio and TV would cease from midnight and internet competitions would be taken down as soon as possible. [Leftists destroy anything they touch. Destruction is the real aim behind their "compassionate" facade. They have certainly destroyed the respect in which the BBC was once held]

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