Schools and sport

In an article in The best in Education 2013, Philip Britton, Headmaster of Bolton School and member of HMC's Communications Committee, looks are the impact of sport on education and on life.

As the 2012 Olympics move from a hugely enriching national event to a fond memory, and the euphoria of Super Saturday brings a smile on a damp Spring Day, there is an increasingly sharp spotlight on sport in schools. The somewhat intangible legacy of the games has many possible faces but clearly if schools can engage effectively in sport then the largest number of young people will be touched in the most effective way.

Just how sport should be delivered in schools and how well that is going is a very current and significant political issue with a heady mix of educational and sporting interests, each with overlapping but divergent aims. In some areas the issue is facilities, the sale of playing fields and under development. In others it is high quality coaching. More interesting than the how, which as ever will alter over time and according to fashion, is to consider exactly why we feel sport is so important in schools. So why is it so important for our young people to tramp the muddy fields on a games afternoon?

First the obvious. As food is more plentiful and more processed at the same time as life becomes ever more sedentary (whose children 'play out' anymore or walk to school - all for the best of reasons, keeping them safe) it is quite clear without recourse to any detailed surveys that young people on average are getting fatter and less fit. It is vital that if schools are about preparing people for life then part of that preparation is to make them fit for a high quality for life, with the energy for an active day and the sense of well being that comes with fitness. The link between feeling good and feeling fit is what drives many reluctant adults to the gym and it is no different for young people. And getting our children to feel good as they go through school is just as important an aim as getting them to know things. More importantly fitness is a habit and habits are more easily formed when young. The fitness bug is best caught at school.

Sport also develops a range of other habits in a way that is fun, almost undetectable by those participating but immensely important for their futures.

Self reflection is a key life habit, the ability to judge yourself fairly, not being down on yourself but not being unrealistic about what more could be done. So is the sporting attitude that the game matters absolutely when it is being played, but afterwards it was just a game. The post match analysis, further training plan, the relentless focus on improvement that is basic to sport develops this skill like few other activities. Perspective and context, about commitment but letting go of what cannot change are all essential attitudes to life.

Then there is the sense of what it is to be in a team. Teams exist across all areas of working life and within society - working out what role you play, that whatever you do matters, that if there is an outstanding member of the team they still need you and if there you are the outstanding athlete you still need the team are important skills for life, all learned in a practical context through sport.  Teams need leadership and sport develops that leadership.

Sport is also about individual targets, determination and commitment. The link between success and effort is ever more tenuous in a celebrity society. Too many young people, when asked about their careers, say they wish to become famous. Becoming infamous is easy but fame is hard won. The Olympics redressed that balance and so does sport in school day by day. Becoming excellent is hard work. The early morning training, the day by day routine, the diet, working round other commitments...all are difficult and in engaging with sport young people develop resilience that will be a key habit for life.

Finally there are the social habits associated with sport. Whether individual or team sports the team bus, the after match refreshments, the walk to the sports field all develop close social links that last through life. These, based as they are on the very positive attitudes associated with school sport, make a difference later in life. 

From time to time there is discussion about what makes the difference in Independent Education. There are many answers but towards the top of the league would be that very many such schools have a very active approach to sport. That sport develops the attitudes and 'soft 'skills discussed above. Link that to the fact that when i speak to Old Boys' of my school they invariably say those soft skills are what makes them successful (the qualifications they got are the passport to their future lives, not the roadmap) then it is clear developing young people through sport can and does directly change whole lives.

Yes, sport will keep you fit and so, all else being equal, there will be a quantity of life. It is also, and perhaps more importantly true, that sport produces mental fitness with will add quality of life to that quantity and produce well rounded young people able to contribute to their society.

Philip Britton MBE, is Headmaster of Bolton School and a member of HMC's Communications Committee. He is also Vice President (Education) of the Institute of Physics.