Will it all just be the same again?

Chairman of PADSIS, Neil Rollings looks at issues around sports at the start of the year

A new generation of children began their senior school experience a couple of weeks ago. Despite the inevitable apprehension, most will approach it with some degree of excitement. New opportunities ahead. Bigger and better, eye catching facilities. The big stage. 

PE and School Sport play their full part in this process. For many, it is something to look forward to, a potential high point of school life. For others, it invokes dread.

The confidence with which it is approached is generally a reflection of previous experience. Those whose earlier school life was full of team selection, match and festival triumphs come armed with medals, certificates and an expectation that the next experience will be just as positive. Others have already learned to carry the badge of “non-sporty”. Their attendance at after school sport may have evaporated long ago, when they failed to be selected, supported and rewarded. Or played in teams bearing lowly letters of the alphabet, with appropriate status in the school. All will have participated in compulsory PE, which will have varied enormously in standard. For some it will have been reluctant class teachers, wary of going outside in cold weather, and levels of physical literacy will reflect this.

New schools provide the opportunity for a fresh start. Apart from the variable baggage, it’s a chance to begin again. Wipe the slate clean. Embrace democracy and deliver that high quality experience so shamelessly boasted on promotional materials and at Open Days. Those first few vital weeks are like away goals in European Football, counting double in their impact in answering the question implicit in all the new kids – will it be the same again, or will this be better?

Many of those of average ability have above average enthusiasm and aspiration, and are at least hopeful that this new life – in this new kit and on these amazing facilities – may be the Promised Land.  Attitudes formed in these crucial days may shape behaviour which could last five or more years, and influence habits into adulthood. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a pivotal time in the life of a child.

So, what might improve this initial experience?

Firstly, avoiding references to the past. A new start has to be that; not one of constantly looking over the shoulder to what has gone before. The expediency of creating a team for the first match might make it tempting to ask who has played in teams in previous schools, or in clubs. However, the unintended consequence of this is to reinforce the suspicion that the Chosen Few from the previous life will be first in the queue again. It is difficult to promote the concept of a Growth Mindset and celebrate effort and strategy, if the Ability badges are being handed out from day one. Inevitably, selection on the grounds of current ability will occur at some point, but a delay of only a couple of weeks, and a cosmetic wrapper of democracy is disproportionally important in stimulating new aspiration. If the early competitive programme can be structured to accommodate all, and managed to share opportunity, there is important postponement of the time when anyone has to go home and confess to parents that they weren’t good enough to be selected. Or worse, it is wrapped in the language and culture of North America: they have been “cut”.

Secondly, opportunity needs to be of equal standard for all. If the early developers get access to better resources, greater encouragement and wider opportunity, then the language of equality is hollow. 

The suspension of early judgement extends to avoiding tests and measurements, especially maximal ones, in the early weeks. Children who were at the back of races and tests in their previous schools live in dread of the same thing happening again, in front of a new, bigger and potentially critical audience. Recording the results compounds the problem.  The idea that “fitness” can be tested at the start and end of term to show “progress” is fatally flawed: mostly what this measures is growth and motivation.  Or lack of either.

The early weeks of new pupils offer schools the chance to re-engage all children and to convey the message that – whatever has happened before – this is a culture of physical activity that is for everyone. That PE and Sport can be an opportunity for fun and friendships, and that the organisation values effort, aspiration and being physically active, regardless of current size, shape or previous experience.

The window of suspended judgement is a small one, but disproportionately important. The seeds of adolescent disaffection are sown here.

Neil is Managing Director of Independent Coach Education, which provides training, recruitment and advisory services to schools, in sport. He is also Chairman of PADSIS which is a non-profit making professional organisation for Directors of Sport in Independent Schools.

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