Is business success really created on the school playing fields?

Death to compulsory rugby! Schools should arrange access to aerobics, canoeing and martial arts
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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY ADULTERY News - aka the Daily Mail - carried a two-page story about marital breakdown that, for once, did not involve any interesting (though deplorable) acts of infidelity. The couple concerned were a left- wing Labour MP and his wife who had separated - according to Adultery News - solely because of a disagreement over where one of their children should go to school. She wanted the best for little Vladimir, while he felt that going grammar was more than his conscience could bear. How separation made any of this any easier for parents, child or school system is not clear, but I'm afraid that is not what this article is about.

But what it does illustrate is the extent to which arguments about the education of our children have the power to raise tornadoes over the otherwise calm and featureless prairies of family life. For example, there's going to be a hell of a row in our house tomorrow morning when my partner reads this article. In it I intend to endorse plans, to be published later today, for changes in the national curriculum that will make competitive team sports no longer compulsory for 14- to 16-year-olds. Indeed, I would like to remove compulsion from participation in team sports at all ages.

She will not agree. With sparkling eye and flushed cheek she will talk about how she loved lunchtime lacrosse in her Cardiff school. Not a particularly sporty person, she had relished her role in the collective, and enjoyed that hectic, pounding feeling of endorphins pulsing through her brain. It was good for her; it was good for her school-mates; it will be good for our kids.

My memories are of sodden futility. Until I grew so big that I could play for the school second rugby XV simply by bending down and pushing the bum of the guy in front of me with my shoulder, virtually every compulsory sports session fell somewhere on a line between total tedium and real suffering. The showers, always a source of warmth and unexpected information, were the only consolation. And you couldn't easily ask to be let off games, but then turn up only for the showers. At least, not in my school.

Sports have long played an absurdly exaggerated role in British schools; a role that looks soon to be superseded by citizenship. Those in government advocating today's change suggest as much when they admit that "if children have not developed an interest by the age of 14 in competitive games, they're not going to". This is a rather bizarre formulation. Why, after all, be either surprised or so seemingly upset by this lack of interest? We don't bemoan the fact that so few schoolkids are into ballet, theatre, car maintenance or opera, and we do not make them attend such events as part of the curriculum. Perhaps we should.

The reason for this imbalance lies in the fact that many Britons really do believe that stuff about Waterloo and the playing fields of Eton. Today this belief is couched in terms of "team-work". Giles Toosey, one of that growing breed of "event management" consultants, speaking to the BBC yesterday, proclaimed that: "Fairness and sharing responsibility are as important in the office as on the playing field. A strong rugby team will have 15 people with a complementary range of skills, abilities and physical makeup." So, to succeed in business, each team needs its flankers,

fly-halves, props and hookers, working in harmony to turn the other side over. And it all starts on those windy, wet, muddy afternoons in early adolescence.

I do not believe it. What, after all, is supposed to be the transmission mechanism here? Many people's experience of competitive school sports is not of successful teamwork, but of embarrassment, pain and fear. That absurdly hard little red ball heading straight for your unboxed goolies, that precociously pubertal gorilla from 3B bearing down on you, as your team captain screams, "stop him!", that moment when every thug in the class realises that it's time to bash the clever kid.

So I am prepared to bet that there is not a single study showing that participation in school sports encourages successful business practice. In the real world teamwork is more about co-operative strategies than it is about competitive ones. Putting on a school play - now there's co- operation! Hogging the touchline, hoping to hell the ball doesn't come anywhere near you, that's no preparation for real life.

Look at girls. Just under a month ago a Girls in Sport programme was launched by the Youth Sport Trust, who had spotted that two-fifths of early teenaged girls didn't like school sports, partially because they regarded them as too masculine. The net result was that many of them stopped taking any kind of exercise altogether. The same survey of 3,000 children and teenagers, conducted for the Trust, showed that girls were more interested in "self-improvement" than in winning. In other words, they wanted to set individual goals in which they improved against themselves, rather than defining success in terms of victory over others.

This preference can hardly be said to have let them down at work. The greatest social change of the past two decades has been the success of girls at school and, increasingly, women in the workplace. In other words, those who lay least stock on competitive sports are those that are doing best.

Some researchers now believe that many boys develop such a fixation with sport at an early age that they fail to acquire the necessary social skills.

Aware of this contra-indication, the teamwork bods then shift the argument to one about management. Could it be that so few women make it in top management precisely because they have not learned teamwork skills? All I can say to that is that it is interesting how few successful entrepreneurs have been particularly sporty.

Bill Gates did not get where he is today by playing little league baseball. The teenaged Richard Branson probably only emerged at half-time on to the field of play to sell oranges and water to the two teams.

No, what conceivably disadvantages women far more than their supposed lack of team awareness is their inability to comprehend the overworked sporting metaphors in which our top men like to communicate ideas and strategies. It is, I think, a deliberately mystifying language, it should be stopped and - to that end - I would welcome good examples from those readers who have come across them.

So, death to compulsory rugger. But that doesn't mean that we must allow our children to drift around unsweated, a tribe of pallid, etiolated Goths. There should be alternatives to games played with mud, sticks and leather. Schools should arrange access to aerobics, canoeing, or those myriad Eastern martial arts that you suspect are being invented daily by Hong Kong entrepreneurs, and then marketed to the West. Don't you agree, dear?

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