Not A Good Summer For The Curriculum 2 – School Sport

The news in early summer was dominated by all the pre-Olympic excitement, counter-balanced with very British concern and speculation over what might go wrong. Who could possibly have foreseen (a) that it would all go so very well and (b) that this success would lead to state school sport taking such a battering from leading political figures?


With Team GB excelling itself (3rd place; 29 golds; 65 medals) and the feel good factor having such a positive impact on the spirit of the nation, here was a chance for our elected leaders to celebrate the nation’s success and to join Mo Farah in thanking PE teachers for all their hard work, skill and dedication. 


We saw the daily pictures of the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London who were clearly very keen to associate themselves with our sporting success. However, not only did they fail to give credit to those who devote their working lives to inspiring our young sportsmen and women, they subjected state school sport to sustained criticism. 


There was even, from the PM, a stipulation that the new National Curriculum will require all primary school pupils to engage in competitive sport (as well as a mocking side swipe at Indian dance). Boris Johnson showed his level of understanding of the maintained school curriculum by proposing his old Eton model of two hours of sport per day, despite the fact that his own party dropped the requirement for schools to provide two hours per week


So how could Team GB’s success at the Olympics possibly have provided a platform for condemnation of state school sport?


The trigger seems to have been reports of statistics relating to the balance of Olympians from the public and state school sectors. However, unsurprisingly, the quality of the analysis and the conclusions drawn left much to be desired. The logic seems to have been that since a high proportion of Olympic medallists came from public schools, state sector sport must be deficient and state school teachers must be culpable. Interestingly, the proportion fell as the games went on, the balance of events shifted and Team GB’s tally included more medals from cycling, athletics and boxing  (see state school v public school Olympians blog).


The next stage in the criticism of state provision was the attempt to explain the disparity in terms of commitment to competitive sport. Competitive team sports have, of course, always been central to the ethos of public schools and the PM was quick to spotlight one of his favourite soap box issues, namely that state schools have a ‘prizes for all’ philosophy and fail to develop any competitive spirit in their young people


There was some, but very little, attempt by the media to explore the truth behind this simplistic analysis. Rather than questioning the validity of these conclusions, the focus was almost entirely on how to deal with these ‘problems’.


Comparing Like With Like


Those of us with experience of school sport know that comparing provision in the two sectors is a classic case, if ever there was one, of the absence of a level playing field (sincere apologies for that – resistance was useless). There are a number of reasons for this.


Regardless of their subject specialisms, teachers in the private sector are normally expected to double as sports teachers / coaches, at least on a Wednesday afternoon, when almost the entire UK senior public school population is engaged in (mostly competitive) sport. Public sector sports teachers can only dream of the resources and the acreage of playing fields required for such a high proportion of the school population to be involved in sport simultaneously. Even prior to playing field sell-offs, few state schools could compare their provision with that of their public sector colleagues.


One of the reasons behind public schools’ allocation of so much time to sport lies in the boarding tradition. Boarding house masters and mistresses have long appreciated the benefits of having exhausted their charges with strenuous exercise before lights out. Although the proportion of day students in public schools has risen over the years, daily and week-end sport has largely retained its high profile. Presumably it was in these sessions at the end of the school day that Boris honed his Eton Wall Game skills (and possibly where he perfected the head butt to the stomach he famously deployed in the charity soccer match against the Germans in 2006).


When it comes to the most resource-heavy sports, there is, of course, no comparison between the two sectors. The level of investment required for rowing and sailing equipment and access to rivers or other bodies of water put these sports far beyond the reach of almost all state schools. Olympic equestrian sports remain almost exclusively the preserve of those whose parents are wealthy enough to own horses, to meet all the associated expense and, of course, to send their children to public school. The balance of provision of a number of other Olympic sports also lies predominantly in public schools including hockey, archery, fencing and tennis. With rugby sevens and golf joining the list of Olympic sports in 2016, there is likely to be a rise in the proportion of public school Olympians in our Rio Team GB. The state school v public school Olympians blog shows the 2012 proportions in our medal sports.


These differences between the state and private sectors are well known and will not be news to anyone with any knowledge of school sport. What is remarkable is the way that the comparative figures led straight to political sound bites critical of state school sport without any acknowledgement of the diversity of opportunity and of the established routes through which sportsmen and women reach the top in different disciplines. 


For all these reasons, in a wide range of Olympic sports, Team GB representatives are extremely unlikely to come from public sector schools. Team GB fans did not seem to mind, cheering every success and, indeed, every competitor. Perhaps a more appropriate focus for our political leaders would have been to celebrate the diversity and the unity of Team GB.


Competitive Sport in State Schools


Games teachers across the country, whose lives often revolve around the complexities of organising and fulfilling home and away fixtures in all seasons (and weathers) alongside a full teaching timetable, were perplexed by the PM’s blanket statements about the absence of competitive games in their schools.  


Primary schools often operate a policy of introducing the youngest children to sport in such a way that they are all encouraged to enjoy taking part. Competitive sports are rightly introduced gradually in an effort to develop a love of sport and exercise in all and to ensure that competitive sport is seen in this context. As the wonderful Jessica Ennis said when asked about competitive sport in her post gold medal interview, “You have to get them interested first”.


Getting the balance right with respect to competitive and non-competitive sport in schools is certainly not easy. Some facts are indisputable:


•There are far too many people in this country who rarely or never take exercise 

•There is too much obesity 

•Many people are put off sport for life by their experience of school sport 

•Something needs to be done to address these issues

•Schools are part of the solution


To what extent the nation’s ill health results from a negative experience of competitive sport, however, is not clear. What is also unclear is the intended outcome of the Prime Minister’s intervention in the primary National Curriculum. His statements to the press seemed to suggest that his focus was competitiveness. 


Perhaps, now that the heat of the Olympic summer is past, the PM will take time to explain what he was hoping to achieve and why he feels he has the knowledge and experience to make curriculum policy in such haste and without consulting experts in the fields of education and sport. Otherwise people may think that he feels it is right for elected politicians to dictate the curriculum to suit their own ideology. 


How dangerous would that be?






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