LEADING ARTICLE : Playing silly games

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR is back on form. Take an easy issue - too many traffic cones, not enough motorway lavatories, too much loutishness, too many British sporting failures - and make declarations with which almost nobody can disagree. ("Every game delivers both a winner and a loser.") Then announce some vapid "initiative" that will not change anything.

Last week's initiative - more team games, more sports scholarships, a pounds 100m British Academy of Sport - was described by the Times "as the biggest revolution in school sport for 50 years". What exactly happened in 1945 was not specified but it can be stated with some confidence that school sport has undergone a big revolution during the past 16 years of Conservative government. Inter-school fixtures have declined dramatically. Teachers, on whose goodwill they used to depend, were forced to accept contracts spelling out their working hours. So they stopped volunteering unpaid overtime to supervise games - or to wash the shirts and drive the team members home. (Mr Major, it should be noted, offers no payment for the four hours a week of "structured sport" that he wants teachers to offer at lunchtimes, evenings and weekends, only a few gold stars.) Further, cash-starved local authorities have sold off some 5,000 playing fields since 1982. The national curriculum, with its proliferating tests and targets, has squeezed physical education so that only 25 per cent of 14- to 16-year-olds now spend more than two hours a week on it, against 72 per cent in 1987. If there is anything wrong with school sport in Britain, then the Prime Minister should know very well who to blame.

But is sport really the proper business of schools? Physical education clearly is; children should learn how to exercise their bodies and to stay fit, if only to reduce future burdens on the National Health Service. Competitive games are a different matter. They are not a particularly efficient means of exercise, as anybody who has dawdled in the cricket or rounders outfield or spent lonely afternoons on the wing in rugby or hockey will testify. Why are they any more deserving of a place in the compulsory curriculum than gardening, ballroom dancing, bird-watching or any one of a thousand other leisure activities that give people pleasure and, to use Mr Major's words, enrich their lives? Not, surely, because they are character-forming. Sport long ceased to offer any examples of how to behave. Tennis players storming off court; footballers abusing referees and baring their bottoms; managers accepting bungs; rugby players leaving stud marks on each other's backs; cricketers trying to doctor the ball - all these may be good representations of contemporary mores (indeed, modern sport offers the most perfect embodiment of commercialism, greed and sheer bloody-minded disregard for other people) but no teacher would wish to recommend them as models of behaviour. Nor can it credibly be argued that sport develops skills of leadership, team spirit and co- operation: if that were true, British industry and professions, led by public schoolboys brought up on a diet of compulsory games, would be far better run than they are. Why, in any case, does group work, roundly denounced by ministers inside the classroom, suddenly become a good thing outside it? It cannot even be argued that most children enjoy games. Perhaps one in four does; the large majority of girls and a fair proportion of boys thoroughly detest them.

Mr Major's announcement last week is just another example of how ministers, mainly in the interests of political showbusiness, are creating endless muddle in schools. Hardly a week goes by without some new demand: that schools give more time to religion or sex education or anti-racism or enterprise or parenthood or whatever worthy cause happens to have entered a politician's head. Business courses teach that organisations succeed best when they have a few clear and achievable aims; research on schools in the Far East suggests that, in the academic basics, they do better than British and American schools precisely because their teachers are not burdened with multiple objectives. Mr Major said he wanted "to re- establish sport as one of the great pillars of education alongside the academic, the vocational and the moral". He wants to have several cakes and eat them. If some schools wish to make a big thing of games, well and good. But it is no business of Mr Major's if most prefer to give a higher priority to other subjects.

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