Education: Yes, of course we want stars, but not sport for an elite

Schools risk turning the majority of children off sport because of their concentration on the gifted ones that make the school team.
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The Independent Online
Today the Government will announce changes to the national curriculum which will mean that children can give up competitive games at school from the age of 14 and switch to more individual sports such as aerobics, dance or fitness training.

Most children are keen to play some kind of team games, but opportunities to do so that are increasingly limited. They're not allowed to kick a ball about on the streets or in the park because it's deemed unsafe. Unless they're particularly talented they won't make it into local league teams, who want only the best players. The same goes for school teams, under growing pressure to win and thus boost the school's public image.

There's nothing wrong with teams wanting the best players - as long as the needs of other pupils with bags of enthusiasm if not so much skill are also met. They too want the thrill of competing and playing a "proper" game. But the reality is that many schools no longer offer much - if any - extra-curricular sport apart from team practices. As a result, many children give up on sport for life when they realise they'll never make the team, no matter how hard they try. Yet if they were offered opportunities to play at their own level - and to find a sport that really suited them - their enthusiasm for exercise would have more chance of standing the test of time.

But, sadly, schools, who could do so much to get kids off the couch, are offering less sport, not more, according to a survey by the National Association of Head Teachers published in March. It found that school sport has decreased significantly both during and outside school hours over the past two years. It blames, among other things, the emphasis on literacy and numeracy and the decrease in the number of young teachers with the expertise and time to assist in extra-curricular PE. The football club at our local primary is now run by outside coaches who charge pounds 18 a term.

At the same time there is no shortage of high-profile national initiatives to boost interest in sport, from Sport England's Active Sports programme to the Government's pounds 160m investment in specialist sports centres. But as Patrick Smith of the National Council for School Sport points out: "At the moment, it's coming from the top end - they're looking for potential medallists. We're more interested in encouraging everyone to play - although of course we encourage the elite as well."

Professor David Kirk, Beckwith Professor of Youth Sport at Loughborough University, agrees that there is not always room for both: "Politicians keep saying that we've got to get more kids playing sport so that we can make England win the World Cup. There seems to be confusion between participation by ordinary kids and development of the very gifted who could go on to make a profession in sport. Both are important, yet if you're promoting participation people assume you must be against competition and vice versa. Nothing short of a culture change is needed. We should be saying to kids, play at your own level, enjoy what you're doing, and encourage them to move on to the next level if they want to."

Professor Kirk, who is currently researching new initiatives to maintain interest in sport in teenagers, particularly girls, argues that if schools really want to prepare children for an active adulthood they should make traditional sports more child-friendly. Last month, Kevin Keegan launched the Football Association's new mini-football for the under-10s, with smaller teams and pitches, which allows more players to get the ball. In Australia, the youngest cricketers play with a soft ball, everyone gets a turn at wicket keeping and boundaries are brought in so it's easier to hit a 6.

Professor Kirk backs the shift away from the focus on traditional team games in the curriculum - after all, most people stop playing them as soon as they leave school. Children who hate teams might really enjoy table tennis, badminton or cycling. But unless they get a chance to find an activity that suits them it's all too easy for children to think they're rubbish at all sport.

Some schools are making huge efforts to offer a wider range. Since it started participating in the London Panathlon three years ago, Ashburton High School in Croydon has expanded what was a limited programme of extra- curricular sports to more than a dozen, from cycling and orienteering to badminton and table tennis.

Head of PE, Peter Yates, says: "The Panathlon has created extra opportunities for a whole host of other children who aren't in teams for football and basketball to participate. Anyone can go to the practices and find something different that they might excel in, and there are very few children who would not come under consideration to do at least one of the activities. Every Friday night more than a dozen staff and 60 kids stay. It's important that sport here has developed to meet the needs of more pupils - because if at the end of the day we only turn out five people in a year who can play basketball and enjoy sport we've failed a hell of a lot of children, haven't we?"


Sheila Grout is the first to admit that she cuts an unlikely figure in football boots, refereeing one of the matches she organises every Saturday morning in the village of King's Cliffe near Peterborough.

"I ALWAYS hated football and I never dreamt I'd be doing this. What got me started was that my oldest son was desperate to play but he wasn't good enough to get into the school team, and the local league team told him to forget it because he would never be good enough. The same was true of many of the children in the village, so myself and a couple of other mums decided to organise weekly sessions which would give everyone a chance to have a game.

"I don't think any of these children saw themselves as ever being good enough to play in a team, and it's been such a thrill for them to have proper kit and play proper football."

Amanda Rackham, whose son Harry, 5, is a force to be reckoned with in the under-8s, agrees: "The first time Harry played his team lost 11-0. He thought he'd died and gone to heaven - to him just getting the opportunity to play in a team was what mattered."

That's not to say the Red Kites aren't competitive. Sheila's eldest son Robert, 11, is clear: "We like to win. Some of our players get a bit despondent if we start getting thrashed - but in one game we got back from losing 3-0 to win 4-3. Now I've got the Red Kites I'm not bothered about being in the school team. This is a chance to play football with your friends but in an organised way instead of without a referee, when things can get a bit wild."

Since the sessions started during last year's World Cup over 40 children- two boys' and one girls' team - have turned up every Saturday and Sunday. Everyone who turns up gets a game, no matter how feeble their skills, and the emphasis is firmly on fun.

There has been no need to demand a commitment from players or adult helpers. Sheila, who has three sons of 11, 9 and 6, says, "If we had to nag people to come along we'd have a re-think." It does mean that parents who plan to just drop off might get roped in to referee, but no one seems to mind.

In less than a year the club has swapped jumpers-for-goalposts for the real thing and plays regular friendlies against other villages - they've even got sponsorship from local businesses to pay for their kit. Their parents say they are much fitter (this time last year some of the 10-year- olds could barely run), calmer, and have learnt to lose gracefully.

One mother cheering on her nine-year-old son from the sidelines says, "At first, if someone made a mistake they would really be bawled out by the other members of the team. For that reason my son didn't want to play because he'd miss a pass and they'd yell at him and he'd come off very upset. That doesn't happen any more - they don't tell each other off for making mistakes - which is very rare. I think the coaching is really good from that point of view."

The distinctly unmacho philosophy behind the sessions may well contribute to their enduring popularity - a marked contrast to other teams. Sheila says, "League teams have quite a high standard and a lot of them tend to be run by very competitive men who seem to get some pleasure out of winning for themselves. The philosophy we've tried to get across is that you play as well as you can, and you keep on trying to win even if you're 5-0 down. But if you lose, it doesn't matter because you've enjoyed the game and you've learnt from it. We don't coach the children as such - we're all clear that if we went too far down the training road we could lose the element of fun and spontaneity."

Sheila's tips for running your own fun sports

Put up posters in local schools to sound out the level of interest.

Find a field or hall. The local school is the best place to start. If all else fails there's always the park.

To get insurance - which is essential - you need to form an official body. Sheila Grout formed a youth club with the help of the Northamptonshire Association of Youth Clubs, who provided advice on drafting a constitution, child protection, parental permission forms and so on.

A qualified First Aider must be present at all activities. It's probably best to get more than one involved parent to take the basic course.

If you offer more than one hour's activities a week to under-8s you must register with social services. This involves regular inspections (which you pay for), and police vetting.

Enlist the regular help of someone who knows about football. Sheila found no shortage of experts once the club was established.

Keep charges to a minimum. The Red Kites pay a nominal fee for use of the school field, so they charge just 50p per session, which soon recouped the initial setting-up costs (insurance etc).

Once you're up and running, approach local businesses for sponsorship to buy the kit (about pounds 250 per team)