'I think I've got a cold coming on'

Traumatised children, disappointed parents, shell-shocked teachers... Dust down the starter's whistle - it's Sports Day again
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The Independent Online

School Sports Day - a misnomer if ever there was one. It appears on the staff meeting agenda at the beginning of every summer term in every primary school across the land, and is met with sighs and groans, discussion and dissent. It certainly isn't very sporting.

School Sports Day - a misnomer if ever there was one. It appears on the staff meeting agenda at the beginning of every summer term in every primary school across the land, and is met with sighs and groans, discussion and dissent. It certainly isn't very sporting.

The problem is how to please everybody. Some members of staff disapprove of competition while others agree with it. There are those who want the third way - a little bit of competition but not too much. Some want single-sex races while others insist on mixed races in the name of equality. And there are some who start cultivating a summer cold as the set date approaches.

We have over the years tried every option, and we still haven't got it right. We have tried straight running races and have seen the non-academic child grow in stature as he wins something for the first time in his life. However, the child with the fat wobbly legs and little sense of direction suffers the humiliation of being the last to cross the finishing line. The unfortunate who drops the baton and causes their team to lose is ostracised by their peers. I fear these children become sports phobic for life. I am sure that many people out there still burn with shame when recalling the time their plimsoll fell off and caused them to abandon a race. We hand out "I tried my best" stickers with impunity, but still seem to have children who are traumatised by the whole circus. That's to say nothing of what it does to the staff.

We tried to make it a social event, but some parents with a blanket, a picnic and several cans of lager ruined that idea. We tried the round-robin approach. The children loved the variety and being constantly on the move. The staff quite liked it but found it exhausting. The parents with more than one child in the school were run ragged trying to watch a part of every event.

Another perennial problem is to have or not to have a parents' race. There is nothing more frightening than watching a group of large, determined dads pounding their way towards the finishing line as if their masculinity depended on it. They are often cajoled into entering even though it's obvious that they would be happier playing darts. At the last minute a Linford Christie lookalike enters the race and you can smell the fear. Inevitably he wins, and the demoralised dads slink back to their children, who are devastated that their dad wasn't the glorious winner.

The mum's race can be even worse. One year a mum was unable to run and, unbeknown to me, asked her younger, athletic sister, who had no children at the school, to run. She won the race, and mayhem ensued. I had a harder job that day than any Olympic judge.

Don't even consider having a toddler's race. It will end in tears. Just getting them lined up will need far greater skills than have ever been demonstrated at the Grand National. Some will fall over, others will run in the wrong direction, and it will all be your fault.

Getting people to help can be fraught with difficulties. You ask a kindly governor to hold the finishing tape and they complain that last year they had the more prestigious job of blowing the whistle. Worse still is the weather. Plan your big day for the summer term and the weather will surely let you down. You may have to cancel at the last minute, and all the working parents who have taken a day off will hold you personally responsible. If it is hot and sunny you risk the children's delicate skins, sunstroke and dehydration. We made ours wear sun hats and put on sun cream, and some moaned that we were being over-protective and fussy.

This year we are back to the drawing board again. The millennium sports day brings an added pressure. We may well just cancel the whole thing and do something completely different, like tossing the caber or team croquet.

The writer is headteacher of Upland Infant School, Bexleyheath.

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