Andrew Cunningham: You have to pay for a sporting chance

Thursday 07 February 2008 01:00

Why are parents prepared to pay £12,000-plus a year for private schools? In our case, the chance for our children to play lots of sport and be part of a school team. State schools are playing less sport, independents, more. It shows. Privately-educated athletes have won 60 per cent of Britain's medals at the last four Olympics. Most independent schools have proper matches each week: not only for the star players, but for B, C and even D teams in main sports such as (for boys) rugby, hockey, cricket and (girls) hockey, netball, and rounders.

Gone are the days of children left on the sidelines, holding the oranges. All have the chance to represent their school. That can be an education in itself. It's a treat for parents, too. Each Saturday afternoon, we proud mums and dads gather on the touchlines, cheering on our little darlings.

It's 2.15pm and we stand there shivering, while the track-suited teams warm-up. Sports facilities are now so good that, with so many immaculately-groomed pitches to choose from, it can be difficult to find the right one. Invariably there's always a polite pupil on hand to give last-minute directions."Come on, Tristan – play hard!" It sounds like a relic from a bygone age, but I heard one Surrey father shout this only last week.

I shouldn't laugh. When it comes to supporting teenagers, all parents have to strike the right balance between being encouraging and being embarrassingly loud. I'll never forget the look on the face of one girl, cringing with humiliation, because her father was making so much noise on her behalf. Soon, with so many cries of "Go, India!" and "Come on, Tara!" sounding in my ears, I'm shouting along with the rest. Everyone's cheerful. Mums chat about how Sophie and Celia are settling in and wonder who will be the next couple to divorce. Dads, full of bonhomie, shake hands: "Great to see you – hasn't the week flown by?"

Clad in our baseball caps and Timberland shoes, we compare notes on how the rules seem to have changed since our day. Each week, our children are learning more about being part of a team: trying hard, supporting their friends, applauding the skills of others, winning and losing gracefully and respecting the opposition.

Our daughter is usually the first to moan at half-time about how biased the ref' is and how the opposing centre "is so huge and keeps sticking her elbows in my face". But at the final whistle, it's all smiles, hugs and forgiveness – and "three cheers" for the other side.

This hockey season, her B team nearly went unbeaten. When "we" lost the crucial match 2-0 against a top school from Berkshire, who looked alarmingly well-prepared from the start, we parents were as gutted as the girls. We were unlucky, of course. Their centre-half played a blinder, we were short of a key player and their goalie had a Jan Tomaszewski-style match-in-a-million.

We were still in the game as the floodlights cast shadows across the cold Astroturf. At the final whistle, for the first time that season, their heads went down. So did ours. "How did we manage to lose that one?" The dads shrugged their shoulders in disbelief.

Such are the ups and downs of school sport, the very next Saturday, in their final game of the season, the Bs played brilliantly and my daughter scored two goals. She finished the season with a huge smile on her face and I was one proud father. These sporting vicissitudes bring that special sense of being part of a team. And there's a feeling of community from watching on the touchline, too. On that bleak, floodlit Berkshire afternoon, I tucked into the wonderful sandwiches, flapjacks, fruit-cake and tea afterwards and felt a little better. Touchline mums and dads make huge sacrifices to send children to private school. But that's why – whatever their final GCSE grades – the money's well-spent. You watch "your" team play and see the barriers of teenage shyness breaking down and their social skills developing. I can't wait until next Saturday...

The writer teaches English at North London Collegiate School

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