What are we actually trying to achieve through school sport? Do we even know?


The political debate around the legacy of the Olympic Games over the last few days has revolved around whether every kid in every British school should have to do two hours of compulsory sport every week.Cameron thinks not, while Boris Johnson and Kelly Holmes think they should.

But as far as I am concerned this question really misses the point.

What are we actually trying to achieve through school sport? Do we even know?

Is it to keep kids fit, and reduce obesity? Is it to give kids a taste of sports that they may then subsequently excel at? Is it to give kids the first taste of elite competition, which may eventually lead to olympic medal victories?

As far as I am concerned it can only ever be the first of these, and a little bit of the second. It cannot ever be the latter. But I would like to see some evidence about all of this, because at the moment we’re high on hyperbole and low on analysis.

In my school I was ‘lucky’ – I had at least three hours of sport a week. Rugby, football, cricket and some running and swimming. Yet the only two of these I was ever any good at – swimming and long distance running – were thanks to lessons outside school and nothing whatsoever to do with what the school could do. The kids who were useless at swimming at 11 were still useless at 16. I was reasonably good at 11 and was still reasonably good at 16, and all of that was due to my parents taking me to lessons in the evenings as a small kid and swimming racing and lifesaving training in later years.

It turns out that the sport I can really do – inline skate marathons – was something I first tried at the age of 28 – who knows what might have happened if I had discovered this at the age of 14 instead? Or canoe slalom, or dressage? But the only way this could ever be possible would be through the provision of facilities and clubs for whole towns and cities. We cannot expect schools to achieve that sort of provision.

Likewise the “too many British medallists are from private schools” critique by Owen Jones and others riles me. Unequal sports achievement is a result of our unequal society where not enough parents can afford to take their kids to swimming lessons or taekwondo classes. In that context it’s no surprise that places like Millfield excel, and 2 hours of sport (or not) in all our schools is not going to make much difference when it comes to elite sports.

We need solid and concrete steps towards the achievement of a more equal society, and more equal sporting success will flow from that. Everything else is secondary.

This post was first published here.

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