Education: What shall we do after class? Let's get physical: Can success in athletics lead to success in exams? Julia Hagedorn explains how sporting competition won a second innings in school

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The Independent Online
YEARS of opposition to competitive sport in schools is coming to an end, but many schools are still struggling to staff and support out-of-hours games fixtures.

Six years ago, the School Sport Forum was established by the Sports Council, following public disquiet over a decline in competitive games. The forum reported back that it was 'wholly convinced of the value of competition, and of learning to manage its stresses'.

At that time, John Wilkinson, head of St Paul's primary school in north London, was out on a limb. As chairman of Hampstead Sports Association - a loose affiliation of schools - he organised the sports fixtures.

Competition had become a dirty word, he says, and it was almost impossible to find schools to play against. The association nearly came to an end. But John says there is a positive feel again. 'The old skills are being relearnt, there is a lot more coaching in schools and it is much easier to have fixtures.'

Not only do the pupils at his school now have a chance to play against other schools, his staff - perhaps to keep them fit for the extra-curricular demands - have their membership at a local health centre paid for.

For schools outside London, offering these kinds of sporting opportunities is nothing to get excited about. But in the Eighties, a dose of anti-competitive fever swept through many London schools, condemning children to playing with hoops and balls in the playground. Roger Davis, a development officer at the Sports Council, says the anti-competitive lobby was 'one of the most destructive things that has happened to sport'.

Jess Woodhouse, an advisory PE teacher in Dudley, says competition has always been part of sports in his area but, he adds, the balance was overly biased towards traditional competitive games where only a few participated. During the teacher strikes of the mid-Eighties, when staff refused to take on lunch or after-school activities, teachers began to feel that sporting fixtures were providing an outlet for only a small number of pupils. Some schools began to offer sports in clubs to make more pupils participate.

At the same time, however, it became increasingly difficult to get members of staff to help outside school hours. The Secondary Heads Association carried out a survey of non-specialist PE teachers willing to help. 'Sadly,' the association says, 'the position has deteriorated to the point where it is clear that pupils in most state schools no longer enjoy the opportunities of their predecessors.'

Not surprisingly, the picture in independent schools was much more encouraging. There had been a decrease in extra-curricular activities at the weekend in 70 per cent of state schools, while 29 per cent of independent schools reported an increase in the past 10 years.

In 83 per cent of state schools, but only 39 per cent of independent ones, the pressures on teachers from GCSE and the national curriculum were given as reasons for the decrease in out-of-school fixtures. High on the list of reasons for the decrease were pupils' Saturday jobs - 80 per cent of state schools listed that as a reason and a surprising 47 per cent of independent schools.

According to Jess Woodhouse, PE teachers were unhappy about a reduction in competitive fixtures. 'They were the icing on the cake, when you saw the skilled and the gifted performing.' Clubs and associations began to worry about a possible dearth of talent in the future, and, fearful for their particular sports, they became involved.

David Clarke, marketing manager with the National Cricket Association, sees the promotion of cricket in schools as an important part of his job. In a survey of nearly 7,000 cricket clubs earlier this year, 97 per cent of the respondents highlighted the lack of cricket in schools as the reason for young people not taking up the game. The NCA has had enormous success with its mini game, Kwik cricket, which has sold more than 18,000 sets in the past four years.

The Football Association has also increased its local association games to make up for the decrease in inter-school fixtures. In Stafford, for example, 62 secondary and 30 primary schools are involved. Courses for teachers are run alongside coaching clinics, which help teachers to train their pupils.

As for producing future talent, a report by the Sports Council, The Training of Young Athletes, found that the lack of any screening of performance at school meant that children normally had to be spotted by club coaches at out-of-school clubs, where participation depended on parents' and children's motivation.

Godfrey Bancroft, chairman of the National Association of Outdoor Advisers, talks of good sports people being 'manufactured'. They are, he says, 'taught from an early age because of parental support'. Teachers know, however, that competitive games often give a boost to the kind of child who lacks support from home.

There may be help coming from an unexpected quarter. In the present market economy, schools are in the business of selling themselves. Sports trophies in the school entrance hall impress future parents, as do a good display of school teams in framed photos. The independent sector has always placed a heavy emphasis on competitive sports. There are some signs that a revival is on the way in state schools. The Sports Council research showed that 11 per cent of state schools had increased their lunchtime and after-school sport in the past 10 years.

There could be another reason. Competitive sport appears to lead to competitive results. Between 57 per cent and 86 per cent of young athletes in football, gymnastics, swimming and tennis achieved five or more results at GCSE at grade C or above. The national average is only 34.5 per cent. Who knows, perhaps sports results will one day appear alongside exam results in the Government's league tables.

(Photograph omitted)