Education Quandary

My grandson, aged nine, is unhappy that he is never chosen for a sports team at his all-boys school. Should my daughter speak to his teachers? Should games teachers include keen but not so good players in teams?
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This is clearly a prep school, and it is no secret that some prep school heads would sacrifice their grandmothers to maintain their schools' reputations as top sports dogs, while some games teachers are so wedded to the needs of their sacred first teams that non-sporty children barely exist for them.

Hilary's advice

This is clearly a prep school, and it is no secret that some prep school heads would sacrifice their grandmothers to maintain their schools' reputations as top sports dogs, while some games teachers are so wedded to the needs of their sacred first teams that non-sporty children barely exist for them.

Yet a good school is not one with the most trophies, but one which makes sure all its children's achievements – poetry as much as rugby – are honoured, and which requires its sports staff to strike a balance between pursuing excellence, and giving everyone a go. "We would encourage any child to try their best and keep going to practices, and hope that, in any school, teachers would select appropriate teams for appropriate matches," says Derek Whipp, head of South Lee School, Bury St Edmunds, and chair of the Independent Association of Preparatory Schools' sports committee. Inter-house matches and school games against weaker sides allow plenty of opportunities for giving less-strong players a turn, he points out.

A parent who is worried should talk to the head about it, he suggests, although preferably not with all guns blazing. After all, one reason why some schools are so driven to succeed on the sports field is because this is what parents often demand of a "good" school. Stress how much your child is trying, and explain how much it would mean to him if they could ever get him into a B team match. However, parents do need to guard against being too starry-eyed about their children's abilities, or over-protective when it comes to shielding them from disappointment, he says. "If we don't face minor ones when growing up, how can we face bigger ones in our adult lives?"

Jo Harris, vice-president of the Physical Education Association, says there should be a clear distinction between in-school and out-of-school activities. "The PE curriculum is about maximising potential and should be totally inclusive. Every child should be able to progress and feel success. Picking and coaching sports teams is something quite different, and if PE lessons are in any way being used for this, then this is very poor practice, and a parent has every right to go to the school and ask to talk about it." Since nearly one in four seven- to 11-year-olds are now overweight, this inclusivity is vital and it is not surprising that many schools, both primary and preparatory, are slowly starting to revamp their sports days and PE agendas to make sure that everyone is able to enjoy some sort of sport.

Readers' advice

When my son was going through a similar trauma, I spoke to his games master (in the supermarket!) and he very kindly included him in the B team, although he did tell me that he was "not very good"! The effect on my son was wonderful.

I would also like to point out there is another side to this coin. As a GP, I have seen countless young men aged in their twenties whose knees or shoulders have been harmed by playing in too many school teams.

Anne Williams, Wolverhampton

My son was thrilled when he made it into the first team for rugby, but he was then devastated when he was dropped from the team a few games later. The worst thing was that no one had prepared him for what was going to happen. He had no idea until he went with all his friends to look at the list that his name wouldn't be there.

For boys aged 10 and 11, sport is king, and this public humiliation was awful for him. When he asked why, he was told off-handedly that he "hadn't turned in a strong enough performance". But no one had ever said anything to him when he was playing in the team. Life is straightforward at these kinds of schools if you are either very good at games, or not at all sporty. But those in the middle don't know where they fit in, and this can affect everything for them – friendships, academic work, and confidence.

I know games teachers have to pick the best people for their teams, but surely they should be trained to do it with more tact and sensitivity?

Alison Fainton, East Sussex

It is ridiculous to think games teachers should pick anyone for a sports team except on the basis of ability. There is competition in all walks of life, and we are lying to children if we pretend it is any different. And even if weaker players are sometimes put in, the children themselves will always know who is not up to scratch. This parent should face up to reality, and help her child to do so, too.

John Witherfield, Carlisle

Next week's quandary

My son is unsure of what he wants to study when he goes to university, or where he wants to go. His school says he must go to as many open days as possible to help him make up his mind, but we feel that this will be expensive and time-consuming, and also that he won't learn very much about the places he visits because they will just be putting on a show to appear more attractive to applicants. Who is right?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce by next Monday, 17 June, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to h.wilce@btinternet.com. Include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser.

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