Knocking school sports for six

From football to frisbee, school sport is being stripped of its competitive element and turned into a tool for social engineering.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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With obesity on the tip of everyone’s tongues in the UK – that is, when something horribly transfatty isn’t – it is of little surprise to see school sport given a good old workout. Welcoming the findings of the 2006/2007 School Sport Survey (1), Ed Balls, UK secretary of state for schools, was quick to spot the promotional opportunity. ‘Sport — like school food — is important to improve children’s lives and reduce childhood obesity’, he said (2). This may come as a kick in the teeth for those looking to install darts on the PE syllabus, but they shouldn’t give up hope: such is the state-sponsored enthusiasm for getting every kid nominally participating in two hours of sport each week that policymakers seem increasingly indifferent to its content.

As Dan Travis, a tennis coach and researcher into sports training techniques for children, explained in a recent essay (3), this is especially true of sport’s chief component: competitiveness. It needn’t be controversial to claim that sport is all about competition, or at least ought to be. Take classical Greco wrestling contests, complete with eye-gouging and snapped digits, not to mention its later incarnation, the gladiatorial slaughterhouse of Rome; or even the bladder-booting folk-football and bare-knuckle fighting of medieval times: competition, the conflict between opposing wills, individual or collective, has always been to the fore, often brutally so. But although they kicked and screamed their way into the nineteenth century, this ramshackle assortment of informal competitive activities didn’t exit it unaltered. Indeed, processed in the cultural heartlands of the British ruling class, in its public schools and its universities, what we know as sport emerged regulated, codified and with a distinctly moral purpose.

Effectively then, this meant sport as ‘sport’ was deemed useful insofar as it cultivated the type of person a confident Victorian society esteemed. Importantly, this didn’t mean that the conflictual nature of sport was suffocated under the wet blanket of gentlemanly conduct. What it did suggest, however, was that through the standardisation of certain games, the moral accent of sport had changed. In Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), written by an alumni of Rugby school during Thomas Arnold’s headship, the eponymous hero states: ‘[F]ootball and cricket, now one comes to think of it, are such much better games than fives or hare-and-hounds, or any others where the object is to come in first or to win for oneself, and not that one’s side may win.’ It’s not therefore competition per se that was deemed morally suspect, but self-interest – hence the emphasis on team sport. Moreover, the moral claims made on behalf of certain team sports drew on their intrinsically competitive nature, indeed, made of it a virtue. Instrumental it may be, but the ends are not extrinsic to the means.

Adding a touch more Empire to this morally robust mix, a later Victorian homilist, TL Papillon, was equally certain of sport’s value to a public school boy, especially one who, lacking academic aptitude, ‘has devoted a great part of his time and nearly all his thoughts to athletic sports’: for he will still bring ‘away something beyond all price, a manly straight forward character, a scorn of lying and meanness, habits of obedience and command and reckless courage. Thus equipped, he goes out into the world, and bears a man’s part in subduing the earth, taming its wild folk, and building up the Empire.’ (4) It is doubtful that any equivalent rhetoric exists for pedometers.

In an article published in The Tribune in December 1945, George Orwell famously echoed the sentiments above. But he did so darkly: ‘Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’ (5) The occasion for such a tirade may have been Arsenal’s defeat of Dynamo Moscow, but it doesn’t take a historian to figure out that the context of recent World War, and incipient Cold War, provided the frame through which Orwell rendered competitiveness as the essence of militarism. Furthermore, the focus of Orwell’s declamation is illustrative. For it is always in terms of the competitive element, the very element both regulated and exalted in sport throughout its nineteenth-century development, that sport is judged. The disparagement of school sport during the late 1980s and 90s is no exception. On the basis that competitive sport cultivated selfishness, competitive sports days appeared as free-market induction sessions. While many lost their livelihoods during the 1980s and early 90s, in the anti-competitive parallel sporting universe, wrongs were to be set right by ensuring that eggs were glued to spoons.

But times change. ‘It was an absurd and perverse political correctness which caused competitive sports to be banned in some schools and I hope we never see a return to such nonsense’ announced then education secretary Alan Johnson earlier this year (5). Indeed, school sport has rarely been so high up the policy agenda, nor investment so forthcoming. As last year’s School Sport Survey extolled: ‘Physical Education (PE) and sport play an important role in school life. They help to raise standards, improve behaviour and health, increase attendance and develop social skills.’ In other words, school sport does a lot of things the government is keen on doing. Not only that, it also seems to be pretty successful. As David Conn reported, in 1994, only 25 per cent of primary and secondary school pupils in Britain were doing the recommended two hours of PE a week (6). The figure is now 86 per cent (7).

There’s no doubt that the stats are impressive. But it’s what is driving the newfound sporting zeal that is more troubling. As with many other aspects of education, school sport seems to be acquiring its current meaning in a context of social estrangement. In this sense it appears as no more than a vital mediation between the dislocated state and the populace it seeks to manage. But in the process of reducing school sport to a policy mechanism, a management tool, the authorities run the risk of emptying sport of content, reducing it to an abstraction, units of exercise applicable to everyone – sporty or not. As such it can just about refer to anything that involves a degree of movement, hence its ability to colonise informal aspects of kids’ lives – dance or skateboarding, say – and institutionalise them as another school sport.

Likewise, competition changes meaning, and becomes more of a byword for participation, a demand that children find something they’re good at. To wit, James Purnell, secretary of state for culture, media and sport: ‘Schools are offering a greater variety of sports than ever before and children now have more opportunities to try out and find a sport which is right for them.’ (8) That is by no means a terrible thing, but as the deathlessly quantitative nature of the research indicates, the aim seems to be to increase the numbers participating in ‘sport’ without thinking about what they’re actually participating in. Ed Balls at least has the advantage of honesty here: ‘The way in which schools provide sports after [the age of 11] has a big impact on participation. Particularly for girls… If you have a wider range of sports on offer, more alternative sports, more things like frisbee or yoga which are as health driving as any other in schools.’ (9)

Though Orwell or Thomas Arnold would have argued about the worth of sport, they would at least have agreed that such meaning as it had lay in its inherently competitive nature, and the self-realisation and expression that entails. Today’s notion of school sport is in danger of limiting the latter to aerobics.

Tim Black is producer of the sessions School sport: selling kids short? and Are we a nation of sporting losers? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked

Paul Bickerton considered how to make an Olympian. Alex Standish argued that competitive sport has been chased out of schools. Duleep Allirajah labelled Wimbledon a ‘festival of self-flagellation’ and said the problem with England, at big sporting occasions, is that we want to win, but expect to lose. Or read more at spiked issue Sport.

(1) 2006/7 School Sport Survey

(2) Government hails “quiet revolution” in sport, Department for children school and families, 15 October 2007

(3) Therapeutic competition for losers, Dan Travis, Battle in Print, 2007

(4) On the Corinthian Spirit, D.J. Taylor (Yellow Jersey Press), 2006; pp44-45

(5) The Sporting Spirit, George Orwell, The Tribune, December, 1945

(6) Competetive sport is ‘essential’, BBC News, 1 February 2007

(7) DfES School Sports Survey 2005/6

(8) Government hails “quiet revolution” in sport, Department for children school and families, 15 October 2007

(9) Schools told to tackle teenage obesity crisis, Polly Curtis, Guardian, 15 October 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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