The educational benefits of hosting events like the Olympics


The euphoria of being selected to host one of the established "mega-events" is now almost the equivalent of winning the event itself. The benefits are assumed: a lifting of public morale, the potential to "showcase" the nation, the chance to build on tourism and business links, to be the focus of the world's attention. At the same time, costs for hosting an event like the Olympics are vast and the economic returns for a country as a whole are not entirely tangible. So where are the real benefits? Increasingly the focus is shifting to education.

Mega-events are an ideal focus point for learning schemes and for improving levels of aspirations and achievements. The fundamental principles behind the Olympics are based on the celebration of both body and mind, explicitly joining sport with culture and education. High-profile, imagination-seizing, once-in-a-lifetime moments like these are ideal as platforms for reaching people - and particularly young people - who would normally switch off from any "official" initiatives. It's the perfect time for setting new goals, encouraging broader involvement in projects, to get young people learning about other cultures, as well as picking up on relevant practical skills.

There has been investment in 52 mega event education schemes since 1992 - but there is little evidence of what this has actually meant for learners, education institutions and communities themselves. We need to make sure that London 2012 and Glasgow 2014 change that. What limited measurement of educational legacy to date there has been has tended to focus on numbers involved at mega events - for example, in Vancouver, the number of students involved in the Action Schools programme is said to be 400,000. In these cases, however, there is rarely any sign of follow-up study looking at engagement beyond the event. There are no publicly available, official evaluations of mega event education programmes. It should be pointed out that the Get Set programme for London 2012 is currently being evaluated, and the process is due to continue.

The lessons from a new research report into this area has highlighted how education legacy can be developed into one of the principal benefits from a games, picking up on both some of the successes of the past, as well as some failures.

For example, mega-events can be used to increase participation in school sport and physical exercise, the chance to promote values of teamwork and friendship, and for curriculum development around related skills of communication, collaboration and citizenship, culture and creativity, enterprise and internationalism. Large-scale events also create new requirements in a variety of industries, from construction to broadcasting, and many events have tied these in to existing needs and supplied training, initially for a specific event-related role, but with the idea that this training would then provide skilled labour in short-handed sectors.

The Sydney Olympics in 2000, for example, provided the catalyst for customer service training for up to 50,000 people through the 'Welcoming the World' programme. Mega events offer a variety of legacy opportunities - capital (facilities) and revenue (employment) for educational institutions. After the Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992, the Organising Committee's offices became part of the Lycée Professionnel de Grand Arc, allowing that institution to expand.

There needs to be early planning. If possible, education should be part of the pre-bid work, and be a means of embedding the connection between the event and the hoped-for legacy, tackling any obstacles early and allow for a longer running time. Vancouver 2010 tied its education project to the Canadian Olympic Education programme from 1988. Advocacy and accountability needs to be happening at the organising committee level, as well as the relevant national government departments.

Legacy work needs to make sure that teachers and tutors themselves don't just see a mega-event as just another initiative, but understand the one-off potential. Organisers need to link their plans into current education targets, for closing the attainment gap or involvement in particular learning schemes, and once targets are agreed the right kind of scale can be determined for the event. There should also be clear measures of the real impact on people's lives so the education community and the public can at last understand what the role of mega-events can be.

One of the best examples of successful education legacy was from Manchester 2002 and its volunteer programme. 19 further education colleges in the north were signed up, getting more than 10,000 people onto education programmes to learn new skills in event management, large-scale hospitality, security, and health and safety. Volunteers found permanent jobs on the back of the programme and their work at the Games, many still get called up to work on major events in the region, and all felt an increased sense of being part of a community and benefited from a memorable experience.

Legacy projects succeed when they spark excitement and a change in attitudes about what education can lead to. Other schemes - which demonstrate how small-scale activities might be, but are at least have a direct impact on people's lives and local areas - include a Neighbourhood Renewal scheme (Victoria 1994) where after school activities were run in a disadvantaged area; and a construction training scheme to improve employability (Atlanta 1996). Sydney 2000 ran customer service training for up to 50,000 people.

Schools in the UK are building up programmes ready for next year. Schools in Lincolnshire, for example, will be setting up learning passports based on Olympic values; creating a bunch of resources linking Olympic values to the National Curriculum; an online Lincolnshire calendar of events for schools and communities to join in with alongside the Lincolnshire VLE, and using videos to capture the Olympic legacy.

The success or otherwise is being measured through looking at participation rates by September 2013; the number of schools participating in Lincolnshire's Olympic/Paralympic Legacy Passport Schemes; the number of schools with Film Mark, Arts Mark, Sports Mark, International Schools Awards and Healthy Schools status and numbers children and young people participating more fully in sports, arts, culture and media, as well as coaching, volunteering and leadership. In Lambeth, schools have been taking part in joint arts schemes with schools in the next host city, Rio de Janeiro, leading to shows at the Southbank Centre and Young Vic.

Mega-events aren't just about being on the world stage. They have the potential to be a platform for working on some of the toughest problems in UK society, educational disadvantage, the skills gap and inequality.

Tony McAleavy, Education Director, CfBT Education Trust.

March 2011

School Leadership Today