The coeducational challenge in school sport

Huw Thomas, director of operations and director of sport at Sherborne Preparatory School, says it’s time to move away from gender bias in sport and bring boys and girls together for fixtures

Whisper it quietly, but we have made huge strides as a sector when it comes to our sporting provision over the last few years. Despite the significant impact of Covid, we now have the clear opportunity to shape our sporting offering in the next few months to create positive change to positively influence future generations’ participation in sport. Are we brave enough to fully embrace the positive lessons learned from the last 12 months in particular?

Having made the switch from a career in independent senior schools to the prep school world a few years ago, the differing pressures, outlooks and approaches are clear and obvious to me. It is important to recognise and note the outstanding work that goes on in prep schools to develop pupils in readiness for the big jump up to the senior school sporting environment.

The implementation of functional movement programmes and the wellbeing of pupils has become paramount with increasing focus on the careful management of fixtures and the development of the right attitude and approach to learning. Much of this is born out of collaboration. Perhaps surprisingly, the period of time away from fixtures has strengthened the bond between sports departments.

Zoom meetings, sharing Google drives, the setting up of WhatsApp groups, to name a few, have led to a much more supportive and collaborative approach to helping provide the best possible education for the pupils in our care. It has been incredibly rewarding to be part of a process which has shifted the focus away from results on a Saturday afternoon, to developing the right environment and culture for individuals to make long-term improvements.

During this period of online/blended learning, sport and PE departments have adapted their programmes superbly to accommodate the restrictions in place. Advances in technology, the response to both ‘in school’ and ‘out of school’ provision, and coping with a reduction in staffing caused by the furlough scheme, as well as illness, have all highlighted the resilience of staff involved and their adaptability.

The ability to make changes, to be flexible, to think outside of the box and to continue to provide a beneficial and progressive offering by making the most of the available resources have all come to the fore. All of this takes time, organisation and a willingness to take a step back and create clever solutions to the immediate problem. We have all proved that as leaders in our schools we can be proactive in our planning and look at the possibilities and opportunities to develop our programmes.

So, get to the point Thomas! Why are schools falling back into the traditional fixture programme at the very point where there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel? I appreciate that it is easy and less challenging but…

At Sherborne Prep School, one of the absolute successes of the last 12 months has been our approach to mixing the girls and boys during the games programme. We have continued to offer our major games programme but have broken away from always splitting our games by gender. This has absolutely been a product of adapting to the restrictions of bubbles and the need to maximise our resources, both physical and human, but the benefits have been astounding.

At Sherborne Prep School, one of the absolute successes of the last 12 months has been our approach to mixing the girls and boys during the games programme

It has been a resoundingly successful and popular move with both the pupils and the parents. We have offered netball and touch rugby to all, as examples. But as we all look ahead to setting up fixtures for the new school year, will schools look to embrace this new approach, or will we continue to revert to the traditional and avoid the big gender split conversation?

From my perspective, the historical approach of allowing a handful of able girls to play sport with the boys is certainly not the right one. Having seen first-hand the ability levels, skill levels and approach to the girls in our setting, if the parameters of the game are fair, then it is certainly a level playing field. There is certainly no physiological reason why this cannot be a focus moving forward and so is it just our ingrained approach and perception that leads us to continue along the same path as we have always followed?

For clarity, I am not advocating non-contact rugby, but I would love to see more flexibility in our fixture programme so that we can play mixed, Ready4Rugby with other schools as an example. I am also not advocating a completely mixed programme but more a balanced approach to the weekly options which facilitates opportunities.

It still strikes me as odd that we have never fully embraced this concept as prep schools. I appreciate that we need to consider single sex schools, National Governing Body guidance and many other factors but I am advocating a fresh look at our fixture programme in order to move away from the gender bias and stereotypes in evidence within our supposedly coeducational settings.

I am not suggesting a full-scale switch, but the challenge should surely be to embrace mixed gender festivals and fixtures throughout the term. Afternoons where we can share multi-sport opportunities for the girls and boys – who will undoubtedly benefit from playing together and sharing all of the wonderful aspects of a competitive sporting environment that we support.

The pupils do enjoy and relish the chance to play with their friends and of course the balance of some single sex sessions is important. That said, how many other departments or aspects of school life separate the girls and boys as clearly as sport? Do we really need a head of boys’ games and head of girls’ games in the modern world?

The benefits of a shared experience are huge; can we take the last big step as modern educational establishments and embrace the chance to allow for a fresh look at how we deliver our major games sessions in prep schools?

There is plenty of opportunity to specialise as they move up into the senior school environment. If it is just the fixture programme and the pressure to put teams out and win on a Saturday then surely, we can do better. We have already proved that we can adapt, be flexible and change our approach, so let’s take the next step as a sector and stop paying lip service to the gender specific issues in sport.

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