Competitive Sport in State Schools

I was at the Wellington College Festival of Education this year, and I heard Sir Michael Wilshaw deliver his keynote address on reclaiming comprehensives. One of his main messages was about raising competition within state school sport. He was passionate in his delivery and of course being a PE Teacher I was in full agreement with him. I found myself nodding along to everything he said, as it confirmed my own thoughts about how sport and competition can be a vehicle for education and support what my colleagues do in the classroom. This is what he said about competition:

3. Challenging the view that competition is an ugly word

Third, good leaders challenge the view that competition is an ugly word. One of the most enduring legacies of the educational upheaval of 40 years ago is the effect it had on competitive sports. Sporting competitions, leagues, house games and all the other activities that underpinned a successful school ethos were jettisoned. In the eyes of many they were forever tainted with the elitism associated with grammar and independent schools.

Competition itself was regarded with distrust because it divided children into winners and losers. And that contradicted the warped version of equality many at the time held.

The pride sporting teams contribute to a school’s ethos was dismissed. The fact that children thrive and like competition was ignored. Yes, some children inevitably fail. But learning to deal with and move on from failure is one of the biggest lessons sport can teach.

As our report into competitive sports published today makes clear, state schools are still living with the consequences. Some 42% of UK medals won at the London Olympics were won by sportsmen and women who went to independent schools. This isn’t surprising when you consider the central role sport plays in those institutions. In independent schools, competitive sport isn’t an optional extra; it’s a key component in building self-esteem, confidence and academic excellence.

Of course, many independent schools enjoy financial advantages not available to their state-funded peers. But as our report also makes clear, it is not resource that is the key to their success but attitude. Children are expected to compete and teachers are expected to go the extra mile to help them.

I’m delighted to say that some state schools have also taken those lessons to heart. They use competitive sport to energise the entire school; their leaders understand its value and continually promote it. They ensure that their staff sign up to that goal and that all children, regardless of sporting prowess, are included in some way.

Pride in a team, the thrill of a new challenge, encouraging every student to have a go pays academic dividends. As a result, attainment across the school tends to be high. The school that wins on the pitch wins in the exam hall.

If these schools can do it, so can many more. But as things stand, many state schools treat competitive sport as an optional extra or fail to offer it in any meaningful way.

We have to get rid of this curious leftover from the 70s that competition has no place in schools. Of course it does. The best headteachers are highly competitive people. The best schools aim to win. Competition isn’t incompatible with collaboration; it’s a necessary component of it. If you’re not good, you have little of value to share. We need to celebrate schools’ competitive instincts. Competition shouldn’t be an ugly word. Competition is good.

At the same time as the speech, OFSTED published their paper on Going the extra mile: excellence in competitive school sport. This focussed around the stark difference in numbers of those British athletes that were successful in the 2012 Olympics and their educational background. The key figure was that only 7% of students are educated privately, but produced 41% of the medal winners. The report sets out a number of ways for state schools to implement a better competitive sport system. A few months on, back into full-time teaching and trying to deliver a competitive sports system at school, I’m beginning to feel that the words delivered in that speech were just empty platitudes and that really ‘going the extra mile’ means work harder and for longer hours.

If Sir Michael really wants a successful programme of competitive sport in state schools (and I see this as something very different than Physical Education) to go hand in hand and have an influence on improving a schools success, then this is what I think they need to do to really match the private schools:

1. No opt out of competitive school sport for children at school

Just like the vast majority of private schools, you need to have the ethos that all students will represent the school in sport no matter what their ability. This needs to come from the SLT and it needs to be communicated directly to the parents. I know a number of private schools who require parents to explain in writing for every fixture their child is not available. The culture is so that if you do not compete for the school, then this reflects poorly on the child and their parents. Private schools are able to manage this due to longer school days, boarders being on site or even competitive sport being set into a students daily timetable. You have two major options for delivery; focus on a few sports and make every child in that school play it or give a range of sports that allow the child to choose what they want to do. Both options come with some major financial, staffing and administrational headaches. I also think this is the key to private school sporting success. A wider base of participants ensures training is competitive at all times, having every child there ensures you can build continuity when preparing student athletes and their teams. It is very tough to do this in state schools when you barely have enough to coach a team and they can’t all make training.

2. All staff are to run teams for both training and fixtures

There is the expectation (or even contractual obligation) that all teaching staff run sports teams in private schools. This includes both male and female staff. If you are a female member of staff in an all boys school, then there is still the expectation to run a team or take service activities such as CCF and Duke of Edinburgh. Each sport has someone in charge and they are given time, money or both to implement that sport and support by a number of administrational staff. There is significant leadership value given to someone running a sport. If staff are going to take responsibility in running teams then they need to be supported by training and coaching qualifications. They need to be given time off work to get this training, and funding sources need to be found to pay for it and cover. Staff would also need to be remunerated for this commitment, either with money but in my preference time away from teaching.

3. Upgrade or add sports facilities and fields to all state schools

In the past few season our sports teams have been drawn against quite a few private schools in National Cup Competitions. Just walking into a relatively small private school you can see the vast gulf of quality and quantity of facilities between them and state schools. Indoor Swimming Pools, state of the art sports halls with multi sport usage, fitness suites with CV machines and free weights, vast amount of grass pitches, all weather astros. In the report it asked state schools to link with clubs and other private schools. This isn’t always an option and speaking to my counterparts in private schools, their facilities are a priority for their students.  All state schools need to have open access to these facilities that suit their school day and the best way to do this is to ensure it is on school site. It can also offer up potential revenue streams for those schools if used in a community project.

4. Subsidised Transport Costs for schools

The cost of transport for competitive sporting fixtures is high. Due to continual changing of minibus regulations for state schools, it is easier for schools to hire  outside transport from coach companies, but this from my experience is the highest regular outgoing to schools who want to run regular competitive sports. Private schools, due to the nature of their funding, are not bound by these constraints. Some Private schools even have their own coaches, personalised with school colours and logo, and their own drivers. On top of this, transport for children home after school practices is also an issue that would need to be rectified which isn’t an issue for most private schools.

5. Subsidised Equipment Costs for schools

The costs of equipping students for sport has gone up. Ensuring that all students have the right equipment to compete needs to be either on the family or the school or both. In the last 12 years I have had to cancel rugby fixtures I’ve been refereeing because over 50% of the children involved did not have a gum shield. Their response was that they didn’t know they needed one or couldn’t afford one. Playing traditional competitive sports like hockey and cricket require a substantial outlay on equipment to ensure children can play, then extra for the upkeep and replacement. After transport, equipment is the biggest cost to my department, especially as we can’t expect all parents to provide equipment on top of school PE kit, which I already believe is too expensive. This would be even a greater financial burden if all students were to represent their school.

6. Investment in support staff is crucial

Most private schools have full-time administrators to help with the organising of fixtures, the booking of transport, catering, health and safety and communication with parents. In state schools this usual falls to full time teachers. Most private schools have full time knowledgeable ground staff who take pride in their work and ensuring the playing fields and facilities look immaculate. In state schools this is usual outsourced to a company that may, if you are lucky, come in two afternoons a week. I spent Saturday morning just gone scooping up fox faeces to prepare our pitch, rather than spending time preparing the children for their fixture.  Most private schools have first aid trained staff and qualified referees to help out on fixtures. This is usually once again done by the teaching staff in state schools, mostly at the expense of spending the time with the students who they are meant to be supporting, coaching and trying to develop. Private schools are also able to bring in specialists, be it cricket coaching, strength and conditioning coaches or analysts. Whilst the report recommended state schools to do this, build links with clubs, it is usually beyond the capabilities of full time teaching staff to do this due to time and financial constraints.

7. Bureaucracy needs to be reduced to help state schools

There is a culture of blame and ‘cover my back’ that is ingrained in both government and senior management. This has a huge effect of turning any teacher, including those of Physical Education, off coaching and running competitive sports teams. Policy and risk assessment on every decision and the potential for the teacher to be in charge to be used as a scape goat if something goes wrong. This on top of the ever increasing workload my colleagues outside the PE Department have to endure, ensures that they do not offer to run a team, and frankly I don’t blame them. Private Schools take this workload away from the teachers, they foster a can do attitude, some leeway and allowing professionals to make their own sound judgements. There is always an element of risk within sport, but if teachers are educated well in those risks they generally tend to flourish as coaches because of their day to day contact with children. This bureaucracy got so bad that at the start of this century you had many schools across the country actively withdrawing from any competitive support due to the multiple recommendations from the Government.

8. The issue of School vs. Club Sport needs to be decided

This is probably a personal and a controversial one. Coming from this as a PE teacher I believe clubs are an essential link between pupils school and outside school involvement in a healthy and active lifestyle. In regards to running competitive sport it is a minefield of both training and playing clashes. If state school sport is to be on par with private school sport then potentially there should be no club sport at U18 in the country. All money, resources and training from NGB should then be put into local schools. School sport is a unique experience and only lasts for a finite time. Club sport is there for over 18s for the rest of their life if they want to be. I also believe that most (not all) teachers naturally make good coaches who are emotionally aware of their students, because they spend every day with them.


Personal Conclusion

If Sir Michael Wilshaw and the government want to increase the percentage of medal winners of Olympic Games from state school then they need to put their money where their mouths are. Which successful sport in the UK is run on a shoe string budget, off the goodwill of people with sub standard resources, equipment and facilities? If it is such an important part of a child’s education why did Gove cut the funding to the School Sport Partnership (then quickly make a u-turn with what is in my opinion a poorer option for getting children into competitive sport) or took out extra curricular provision when devising 6th Form funding? If the government looks to ensure that only exam results dictate what makes a successful teacher, Headteacher or school, can you blame them if competitive sport is the first thing to suffer?

Comparing state school sport and private school school is like comparing apples and pears. It offers no real insight on what needs to be improved or what matters. If you want to make it a level playing field then you need to implement the 8 areas above and more, with a vast amount of funding, into every state school. As a coach I would embrace that, as a teacher and a realist its not going to happen and I’m not sure it is in the best interest of the children. I’d like to see the number of children who leave private school and continue to play sport into their adult life as a percentage and compare that to state school children. That would be a far better starting point for a proper discussion on competitive sport provision in schools than how many medals were won by both educational sectors at the Olympics.



4 thoughts on “Competitive Sport in State Schools

  1. I agree with much you have to say. I work in state and have had son in private for 11-16. Funding and commitment is needed but getting rid of clubs is a no no in my view. My son played rugby for school and club very successfully as did many of his team mates. The fact that the club was made up of boys from at least 4 different schools gave them a wider circle of peers. Also a child can turn up at club and leave pre conceptions and reputation behind if they chose. The club was the saving of a boy who was really struggling to behave and cooperate in school. Eventually excluded from main stream for his violent behaviour, this boy was nurtured by the coaches. Without club, I don’t know what would have happened as the only peers left to him would have been other children struggling to behave and very little sport as the PRU did not really do team sport.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.