WHY SCHOOL SPORTS ARE SO IMPORTANT

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Angela Drew, Head of Bromley High School, on the importance of sports in school and why the widening gap between state and independent school sporting achievement needs to be addressed 

I was not a particularly ‘sporty’ child and my son and daughter’s genetic inheritance was more likely to lead them to a love for 19th century novels than endow them with hand-eye co-ordination and stamina. However, the provision of sport did play a significant role in the selection of their prep schools because I wanted my children to enjoy the exercise and healthy competition that is central to the experience of independent school life.

School sport is the perfect channel for the boundless energy of junior school pupils but sport is also expensive. To employ expert coaches and maintain excellent facilities requires a sustained financial commitment. As Head of an independent girls’ school, I often find that talented girls from local state primary schools express an enthusiasm for sport and a real eagerness to try out our extensive sporting facilities, yet may have never played in a competitive fixture against another school.

Much was made of the over-representation of independently educated sportsmen and women in Team GB – a third of medal winners came from fee-paying schools

Last year’s Olympics has been the cue for much soul searching about the legacy of the London Games only four years ago. Much was made in 2012 of the over-representation of independently educated sportsmen and women in Team GB, with a third of medal winners coming from fee-paying schools (many of whom benefited from bursaries and scholarships). From 2012 to 2016, the privately educated proportion of Team GB has risen from 20% to 28%.

The importance of sports in school: School sport is the perfect channel for the boundless energy of junior school pupils

School sport is the perfect channel for the boundless energy of junior school pupils

For many parents, the only way of giving their children the chance for sports to be a natural part of daily school life is to select an independent prep or junior school. In reality, much of the under representation of state school pupils in sport from District and County level upwards is related to facilities and funding.

Despite continued protestations that money is being invested in sport in schools (some £320 million promised for this year through the primary PE and sport premium), vital school playing fields continue to be lost to development with 95 school fields sold off in the 3.5 years following the 2012 Games – that’s two playing fields a month. There has also been a dramatic drop in the number of grass-roots sports coaches capable of teaching school sport with a drop of 65% in Level One coaches between 2011 and 2015 and a drop of 23% in more advanced Level 2 coaches.

Despite continued protestations that money is being invested in sport, vital school playing fields continue to be lost to development

Crucially, the primary commitment of independent schools to sport is participation and enjoyment. Schools are not fundamentally driven by a desire to create a small number of elite athletes but to provide opportunities for all pupils to participate as a foundation for a healthy lifestyle. It’s also a great way to build character and resilience.

‘Too often we allow pupils to adopt a negative mentality that limits their development,’ says Sir Peter Lampl, Chair of the Sutton Trust, which works to improve educational opportunity for all young people. ‘Independent schools enable their pupils to develop the essential life skills that give them a competitive edge, not just in sport but in professional life — to become better communicators, to develop social skills, confidence, high aspirations and more resilience.

The importance of sports in school: Team work is the ultimate transferable skill

Team work is the ultimate transferable skill

Teamwork is the ultimate ‘transferable skill’; friendships formed on the games field make youngsters happier and healthier in the short and long term and they make young people more likely to thrive in a work environment where collaboration and networking are increasingly valuable.

I am particularly heartened as Headmistress of a girls’ school, to see the prominence given to women’s sporting achievement in the Olympics, not least to the utterly exhilarating victory of Great Britain’s Women’s Hockey Team. Building on the work of campaigns such as ‘This Girl Can’ and ‘Like a Girl’, we are now seeing more coverage of women’s sport in the media and more female faces presenting sports programmes.

Teamwork is the ultimate ‘transferable skill’; friendships formed on the games field make youngsters happier and healthier and they make young people more likely to thrive in a work environment

British Olympic swimmer, Siobhan O’Connor, talks convincingly about the impact that equal media coverage of men’s and women’s swimming has on the numbers of young women taking up the sport: ‘I would love for girls to believe in themselves and have the confidence to do what they would like to do without feeling like they shouldn’t, whether that’s sport, the arts or any other passion.’

But for girls’ interest in sport to thrive, they need time in the curriculum and space in the playground to be dedicated to nurturing their sporting talents. Parents and teachers recognise the transformative effect of a child finding a passion early in life whether that is academic, sporting or artistic. Independent prep and junior schools’ commitment to sport is emblematic of their dedication to educating the whole child; to providing breadth of opportunity for each child to explore their interests and to develop their talents.

The omission of artistic and practical subjects from the EBACC (the basket of GCSE subjects by which the government will measure the success of state secondary schools) gives genuine cause for concern that the importance of sport, music, drama and the arts risks becoming undervalued in the school curriculum, but the best schools will continue to commit to leaving their pupils with a lasting educational legacy.

Prep school sport is so precious because it is so much more about instilling healthy social behaviours than it is about winning. Jesse Owens, the great Olympian, pointed to the enduring value of sport: ‘Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.’


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