Offside, 22 June

'Labour's pledge to bring about a "radical extension of sporting opportunities" in schools will be undermined by the banning of informal playground games.'

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

When asked what his priorities were, new sports minister Richard Caborn told Radio 5 Live: ‘I think school sport is very important indeed.’

Labour’s manifesto promised ‘a sports entitlement for all children giving them access to at least two hours of sport in or after school’. Labour claims that it will invest heavily in sports facilities and school sports coordinators. This is all well and good as far as formal PE lessons are concerned. But Labour’s wider policy goal of bringing about a ‘radical extension of sporting opportunities’ is in grave danger of being undermined by the increasing trend for schools to ban informal playground games.

Sarah Thomson of Keele University has produced a report showing that the fear of litigation was driving schools to prohibit playground games (1). Thomson surveyed the playtimes of 1000 children in three counties and found that football was banned in three of the six primary schools surveyed; British Bulldog was banned in all schools; and conkers were viewed as offensive weapons.

One head teacher admitted that he would like to ‘ban all playtimes, as they are a nightmare’. Thomson observed that ‘many of the children’s attempts to play were extinguished by the same supervising adults who complained that children “did not play”’.

What would Ron Manager make of all this? ‘Small boys…teachers confiscating their football…council officials cutting down the conker tree…personal injury lawyers at the school gates. Enduring image, isn’t it? Hmmm…marvellous!’

One school in Sarah Thomson’s study had even banned skipping after some girls had tied their legs together with the ropes for a three-legged race, and subsequently fallen over. But isn’t falling over what childhood is all about? You wonder where this over-protectiveness will end. Perhaps running shouldn’t be allowed either due to the inherent risk of falling over. Walking, too, can be particularly hazardous. You could trip over or twist your ankle.

Maybe local education authorities should produce guidelines on ‘safe walking’ and introduce speed limits for playgrounds. Children could spend their lunchbreaks walking slowly in a large circle – like prison inmates – equipped with kneepads and crash helmets in case they should stumble.

In a climate where safety-obsessed head teachers are killing off playground games, Labour’s two-hour ‘sports entitlement’ is effectively worthless. When I was at school, supervised PE lessons were invariably frustrating affairs. We would march out into a muddy field to play chaotic 15-a-side games of football. There was no coaching, no tactics, and precious little football to speak of. Somebody would hoof the ball upfield and everybody else would charge after it. Brawn was always the winner, and flair players like myself never stood a chance (well that’s my excuse at least). This was what no-rules folk football must have been like in pre-industrial Britain.

In contrast to the regimented PE lessons which we endured, we couldn’t wait for our unsupervised football matches at lunchtimes. These informal games were only for those who wanted to play. Sure, they were also somewhat chaotic since the playground was teeming with other children. But it was only in the school yard that we could play freely and act out our dreams of footballing glory.

If Richard Caborn seriously wants to extend ‘sporting opportunities’, he could start by ordering schools to lift the ridiculous restrictions on playground games.

(1) ‘Playground or Playpound: the contested terrain of the primary school playground’, Sarah Thomson, Department of Education, Keele University, 2000. See Times Educational Supplement, 8 December 2000

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Topics Politics


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