Bad Sports – The dirty tricks undermining state school sports

Weren’t the Olympics marvellous and didn’t Team GB do incredibly well?  As a Sheffielder, I swelled with pride when Jess Ennis triumphed in the heptathlon and honked with pleasure at the news that if Yorkshire were a country, we’d have finished higher up the medal table than many major nations.  ‘Inspire a generation’ was the strapline of the 2012 games, but I think – given how many folk of all ages I’ve witnessed hoofing around our local streets in their shiny new trainers – the games have inspired all generations.

I was very sporty at school.  I wasn’t particularly good at it, but represented both my house and the school at netball, hockey, tennis, basketball and rounders.  I was one of those kids who is best described as a ‘journeyman player’, because I was solid, reliable, a good team player and – being left-handed – had a value above rubies to the rounders team.  I loved it all and played a lot of sport outside school, too.  Through the summer I was never off our local tennis courts and the rest of the year played football, of the ‘jumpers for goalposts’ variety – if I could find at least three other people up for a game, we’d play until it was dark.  On one memorable occasion, a friend and I played a two hour, lamp-post lit two on one game with a boy in our year who later went on to play professional football for the ‘other’ team in Sheffield (they play in red and white and that’s as much publicity as I’m willing to give them).

When I was young and for many years after, Great Britain didn’t win many medals at all, let alone gold ones.  Amongst my earliest sporting memories is David Hemery winning the 400m hurdles in 1968 and David Coleman screaming evermore hysterically as he cleared each hurdle (“And it’s David Hemery Great Britain, David Hemery Great Britain…”).  At the same games, Sheila Sherwood won the silver medal in the women’s long jump and I was most impressed, so when I went up to secondary school the following year I was itching to have a go.  I was a short, rotund child and won’t bother you with what ensued when I toddled down the runway as fast as my short, fat legs could carry me.  You can fill in the details for yourself.

I’m telling you all this because the subject of my ranting this week is recent pronouncements on PE and sport in state schools by a number of politicians with opinions on the matter.  I should note that they’re politicians who didn’t go to state schools themselves, don’t tend to spend much time in state schools and especially not to inquire about PE provision; however, you’d imagine, if you believed Colin Moynihan, David Cameron and that supreme athlete Boris Johnson, that state schools have long done nothing whatever to encourage children to participate in sport.  You can see their point – look how badly Team GB has done in these Olympics, it’s a complete disgrace.  ‘Ah’, these Tory supporters of sport will argue, ‘Most of the medallists went to independent schools, which proves that state schools are rubbish and it’s all Labour’s fault, anyway.  They’ve sold off all the school playing fields and told the headteachers not to let children play competitive sports matches. ’

It’s the kind of nonsense that rouses me to fury, so we’ll spend a bit of time taking apart their fibs, media-generated myths and misuse of dodgy statistics and then we’ll form a posse and go and explain it to them as gently as our cricket and rounders bats will allow.

I used to be the head of a sports college.  Our facilities were average for a school of the size, but staff and governors were passionate about PE and sport and we excelled in a range of sports and in volleyball and gymnastics in particular.  PE teachers and other staff gave up a lot of free time (indeed, they have continued to do so since I left) to hold sessions outside school for large numbers of pupils and there was a large number of teams playing competitively in a large number of different sports.  We were given specific, additional funding as a sports college and most of it went on meeting our own targets for getting the majority of children involved in extra-curricular sport, making lasting links with clubs in order to provide progression for children within sports and in developing the use of our school’s facilities by the community.  We were, like the other sports colleges, hugely involved in school sports partnerships, which sent secondary PE specialists into primary schools to train primary teachers to teach PE and sport better.  I should add that we were one of many such sports colleges, all supported by the Youth Sport Trust whose role involved encouraging further excellence in order to involve larger numbers of young people in sport and assist them in keeping up their sporting habit when they left school.

Schools which were not sports colleges still fulfilled the government target of a minimum of two hours per week of PE and sport for all pupils.  Their staff were committed and dedicated and gave a lot of their free time to support young people in a massive range of sports.  I know, because my school teams played their school teams on a regular basis.  I hasten to add once again – staff at my former school still do all these things, despite the fact that one of Cameron’s first acts when the Tories came to power was to approve massive cuts to funds promoting sport in schools, especially that which supported the school sports partnerships.

And so let’s have a look at what the politicians have been saying.  First at the crease was Lord Moynihan, who bemoaned the ‘fact’ that 50% of medals won in Beijing were by privately educated athletes, claimed that only 7% of the population is educated independently and then gave state schools a good kicking for ‘being crap and encouraging kids to be lardy crack dealers’.  OK, I made that last quote up, but he might as well have said it, because that’s what he was implying.  The right-wing press seized on this statistic and ran around the track holding it aloft, before assuming the ‘lightning bolt’ stance (has anyone else noticed, as I did after the 200m final, that what Usain Bolt does is actually to mime the drawing of a longbow and arrow, rather than an eponymous bolt?) and then proceeding to their tried and trusted ‘series of popular myths about state schools which we’ve convinced our gullible readers are true.’

Here’s the truth:  at Beijing in 2008 most medals and medallists came from comprehensive school backgrounds. Of 59 medal winners, 37 went to state schools, 17 went to independent schools and five had a mixture at secondary education level or they were brought up outside the UK. The total for London 2012 at the time of writing (It’s Friday teatime, for those always keen to know more about me – and who can blame them?) doesn’t look any more impressive for the independent sector, which has so far produced 20 of 68 medal winners.  I will add that this figure is boosted by the independently educated teams from sports such as rowing and equestrianism, which we in the state sector have traditionally been rubbish at and I hold up my hand to that accusation.

David Cameron broke from the chasing pack at this point, pursued by journalists accusing him of hypocrisy, given the fact that they knew about the cuts.  Improvising brilliantly, he claimed he had approved the removal of the target of 2 hours per week of PE because – and you couldn’t have seen this one coming, so marvellous is it in its desperation – “The trouble we have had with targets up to now, which was two hours a week, is that a lot of schools were meeting that by doing things like Indian dance or whatever…”

Mind you, Cameron had some months earlier peddled the most popular of right-wing myths concerning sport in state schools, the alleged ‘ban’ on competition.  Research on this over the years – and it should be noted that Margaret Thatcher commissioned the first such investigation back in 1980 – has produced not a shred of evidence that any such ban or opposition to competition in schools exists.  Cameron went on to do that thing that ought to be explained to politicians is the worst possible way to encourage teachers to give up more of their free time:  he suggested that teachers ‘weren’t doing their bit’.

And then just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, up pops Boris ‘dangling from a zipwire, quoting Pindar in the original Greek’ Johnson, telling us how he did two hours of sport per day every day at Eton and look what it had done for him, so why didn’t we do that in state schools?  Boris, Boris, mate – which bit of ‘your party has massively cut funding to schools, you want more time spent on core subjects and in any case, two hours per day is just stupid’ don’t you understand?

As a child, I was a keen reader of my brother’s comics and one of my favourite characters was the athlete Alf Tupper, the ‘tough of the track’.  Alf held down a full-time job – sometimes he was a plumber, sometimes a welder – and worked shifts, slept on a mattress on his auntie Meg’s floor, trained on a diet of fish and chips and once won the steeplechase when he was temporarily blind.  The rich toffs whom he invariably and regularly thrashed at athletics meets mocked him horribly, undermined him at every touch and turn and, despite their pampered, privileged upbringing and education, proved themselves not even half the man that Alf was – he was selfless and often hindered his own chances by assisting any passer-by in trouble or distress.

Britain’s state school teachers:  I salute you, the Alf Tuppers of education!

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Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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  1. Thank goodness Ms Freeborn has at last given me a post I can send to the squillions of people who’ve harangued me (as an ex headteacher) lately about state school sports….I was tiring of just saying “I have never been in any state school where competition is frowned upon but I have been in several where local authorities sold off nice playing fields ” without any numbers to back it up! Hurrah!

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