The shift from meritocracy to democracy in school sport

Neil Rollings, Managing Director of Independent Coach Education and Chair of PADSIS, discusses the evolution of school sport

Thirty years ago, school sport was much simpler.  Everyone had the same facilities – a gym with wall bars and ropes, and playing fields – and all schools had the same programme. More significant, however, was the widespread acceptance of meritocracy. The more athletic pupils, often the early developers and those born in the first part of the school year, got a better deal. They dominated the school teams, the teachers’ attention and the competitive triumphs. 

Meritocracy manifested itself at every turn. There was no suggestion that the best cricketer should not open the batting and then bowl from one end throughout the innings: the same boy would be fly half in the rugby team, whilst his female equivalent played centre-half in hockey and centre in netball. It was the most efficient use of resources in pursuing the undisputed goal of winning school matches. The substitutes shivered on the touchline, hoping for – though not expecting – a bit-part role. 

Democratisation was gradual. Additional teams for lower abilities emerged slowly for one game in a season, then occasional opportunities in different sports, as the arms race of facility development provided for new possibilities. Attitudes to entitlement began to change, alongside an awareness that, whilst sport might not be for all, exercise and health could be. The ambitions for physical activity in schools widened, and sought to impact on previously ignored constituencies.  

Other influences emerged. The honour of selection for school teams came to be questioned, with some pupils declining the offer of weekend matches. Parents increasingly questioned the meritocratic distribution of opportunity; the substitutes began to expect to come on at half time.  It became necessary to consider the quality of the pupil experience and make decisions based on engagement, rather than simply performance. Opportunity became gradually less ability-dependent.  

Neil Rollings

Accompanying this came a philosophical confusion: how important is winning?  Sharing out the opportunities, giving everyone a chance to play, everyone batting and bowling meant teams were not always at their most efficient. Collaboration began to accompany competition. The strongest players were taken off to prevent the score becoming one-sided; teachers negotiated to make the experience better for the participants. Competition was accompanied by a drive towards competitiveness, improving the quality of the contest by manipulating the uncertainty of outcome.  This happened more, and earlier, in some schools than others: it was a cultural shift that some schools, and teachers, found easier to accept than others. They still do.  

This meant not just that winning became less important, more that winning became more multi-dimensional. Finishing the game with more points than the opposition remained important, but was accompanied by additional participation goals; that everyone should take part in a meaningful way. Development and engagement became legitimate ambitions, introducing medium-term goals alongside the short-term imperative of winning the match. Player retention into senior years became important as compulsion to play traditional games gradually diluted, to be replaced by market forces. If it wasn’t fun, players started to vote with their feet.  Schools began to dread the Friday call of shame, to cancel the match because there were insufficient willing participants. 

The need to make the experience attractive was suddenly, belatedly, and sometimes reluctantly, important. Meritocracy had been replaced by democracy.  Quietly, whilst no one was looking.  

The landscape is shifting, struggling to find a comfortable new position. Success criteria have widened and this has brought confusion in what school sport is trying to achieve. How does competitive success compare with wide participation? Are team games more important than health-promoting exercise? Is rugby too dangerous, and cricket too time-consuming? 

 Schools still allocate most of their resources to support their high-performance teams; most websites focus on the competitive achievements of a minority of pupils. The atmosphere is turbulent, seeking to find the programme that balances performance, participation, engagement and wellbeing. There’s no going back. Democratisation is here to stay. We just haven’t quite worked out what it looks like yet. 

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