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Wednesday 1 August 2012

An Olympic movement of the mind

'‘As we approach the London Olympics in 2012, an observer might notice the stark social contrast between Britain’s investment in the science of coaching medal winners in the sporting arena, and its approach to the needs of young adults struggling to achieve adult independence. By 2012, Britain’s medal tally is likely to remain in the top 3 to 5 countries; but the well being of its young people will remain one of the worst in the western world ( see Unicef 07/08)....' (From Open Talent, 2009)

These words - and the rest of the first page below  - were written by me in August 2009, looking ahead to London 2012. They are from a (rather large) document which outlined, for the first time, the key principles of Open Talent and the early ideas that shaped the concept of Advantaged Thinking. In the context of the 2012 Olympics, they are worth revisiting. Not so much for the optimism of Britain’s likely medal tally in the first paragraph, but for the general drift of the disparity in thinking and investment between how we approach performance and inspiration in sport and how we work with and think about young people labelled as ‘disadvantaged’ .

Open Talent has come alone way from that outline document written over a frenetic week in August. But the point of the journey is as clear as ever. As we hear commentators talk about talent and inspiration on TV, and recognise some of the amazing achievements such as the 15 year-old gold medal swimmer from Pymouth,  let’s not forget about the talent and inspiration that lies in the young people we  care about who are not performing at the Olympic games.  There’s enough to have taken (if they could have afforded them) atleast 40% of all the Olympic tickets. Sport, as well as growing up into a thriving adulthood, is an elite sport (see Peter Wilby in The Guardian online).  Clearly, it's going to take far more than another charity fun run to change the way we think about and invest in those young  people – it needs an Olympic movement of the mind, with host cities every day around the world.  We are beginning to light a fire with Open Talent: a  flame for the future generation we really can't afford not to believe in. ....

'The theme of mismanaging talent and potential has proved topical in the under-achieving world of British tennis and English football; but it is even more poignant when we consider how the positive science of coaching winners with the right skills and resources could have a transformational impact on the lives of 2.8 million young adults if it was applied to a wider social and political arena.  At a time of economic pressure, our most valuable commodity, young people, is too often being allowed to go to waste.  It is not for lack of investment by Government, but a lack of vision for what we are investing in, and a lack of collective understanding of how we can best make that investment work. 
Those young people involved in crime, who are not in education, training or employment, and those who are stuck in dependent lifestyles, all have the potential to achieve.  But how many of those young people have ever been treated as future high achievers? How many have we actually negatively invested in – diminishing their aspirations through short term and poor quality provision, fixed barriers to educational and vocational progression, and resettlement outcomes that limit future life transitions? Too many, is the answer.  Perversely, it is more expensive to make a negative investment, to send someone to prison and criminalise them for the rest of their life, than it is to make a positive investment by giving someone a gold medal educational package on a par with Eton or the best Universities.  Why do we favour more expensive controlling measures, over making an investment in nurturing talent potential?
The answer lies in our social aspirations. In one case, we want a young person to build a sustainable livelihood in which they will continue to thrive for their rest of their life. In the other, we hope that the young person will at best manage to cope with their weaknesses and dependencies for as long as they can. Britain, politically at least, seems to have become a country of low aspirations for young people.  If every child matters, and if every young adult matters too, then why does social policy and practice continue to block the advancement of certain groups of children and young adults?  We talk of raising the bar, but we never dare to remove the bars to welfare, housing, health, advice and guidance and education services, that continue to hold back many young people from making progress in their lives once they have reached the transitional years of 16-25.

Coaching for talent and potential should be a universal approach, especially for those most in need of support; instead, policy and practice dictates that the support we offer is shaped around preventing negative behaviour and controlling risks instead of securing more aspirational outcomes.  The appalling achievement rates of those within the care system – the children of the parental state - speak volumes of our society’s approach. We have turned the transition into adulthood into an elite sport, where only those lucky enough to have the best social and family supports to draw on are likely to succeed. It is no wonder that social mobility, at best, is at a stand still  - that ‘Britain is moving back towards levels of inequality in wealth and poverty last seen more than 40 years ago’ (Joseph Rowntree, ‘Poverty and wealth across Britain 1968 to 2005’, 2007). Like the corporate business world, we have created a system that acts as though the management of talent is about prioritising the few, not investing in the many – a philosophy that runs counter to the principles of social justice and equity that underpin the values of a modern democracy...'
(From Open Talent, 2009)

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