School sport: a head’s perspective
– Richard Biggs, Headmaster of King’s College, Taunton
I saw a lovely sight a few weeks ago. Our U15B rugby team won its match against a local rival school. They haven’t won many and this was a scrappy nail-biter, with our boys clinging to a slender lead in the dying moments and then exploding in joy. There was much leaping about and whooping and yelling and backslapping. And that was just the parents. In assembly the following Monday I dwelt more on the ebb and flow of this one match than on the overwhelming victory of our 1st XV. It seemed to embody, for me, what school sport is all about.
It isn’t universal, this phenomenon of school sport. There are countries where it doesn’t exist. Even here, the home of rugger and footie and jolly hockey sticks, it is patchy, varying hugely from state to independent, from boarding to day, from crowded city to country estate. A school I once taught in had an annual hockey exchange with a school in Hamburg. When we went to Germany we played club sides – very good club sides. The only time the host school ever played as a team was when we visited them. In German schools there is little notion of school sport at all. And that model does work on one level: the sporty types play for clubs and are well cared for. We usually lost the annual match. Heavily.
Why do schools like King’s College spend so much money, energy and (that most precious of commodities) time running a programme of sport? There are certainly other calls on that time and money. We could sell off our fields to developers and retreat into the fancy concrete facilities we would build on the proceeds. We choose not to, though, and for good reason: sport at schools is worth doing. Far from being a peripheral extra it is, I firmly believe, a fundamental part of the curriculum and the educational experiences of our children. Here are just a few good reasons.
Sport for life
We need to be realistic and accept that very few pupils become professional sportsmen and women. A few go on to make a living out of sport in one way or another. But all could, potentially, play sport for the rest of their lives. If a pupil leaves King’s and continues to play his or her hockey at university and beyond, then I think we’ve done a good job. We lay down a foundation of sporting enthusiasm that, if it is well done, can last for life.
A chance to shine
Sport provides an opportunity for children who may not excel in other areas. It boosts self-confidence and esteem, and can have a profoundly positive effect on other aspects of school life, including the academic. A naval man thinking of sending his son to King’s said to me: ‘Charlie was struggling with his studies. We moved him to a prep school, where he discovered he was good at rugby, and his whole sense of who he was suddenly changed. He’s also doing much better in class.’
One of the great things about teachers being involved in the management of teams is that they and the pupils get to see a completely different side, and so gain a more rounded appreciation, of each other. This is lost when we hand all coaching over to the professionals.
Hackneyed, I know, but there is nothing like going through the ordeals, disappointments and triumphs of a team sport together with your mates to cement long-lasting friendships, mutual support and respect. There is no better way to engender a sense of camaraderie than in sharing the emotional highs and lows that go with competitive sport.
A healthy body
Self-evident, I imagine. Sport is healthy. Anything that gets children away from their computers and running around in the fresh air must be good. Again, something of a cliché, but those boys and girls who have spent their afternoons charging up and down the pitches will probably concentrate better on their studies. Obesity is a national problem in young people; exercise is a large part of the answer. Again, this is a benefit that stays with children throughout their lives if they keep playing.
A sporting attitude
If it’s done properly there is a tremendously civilising benefit to playing sport at school. Modesty in victory, graciousness in defeat, a stoic acceptance of occasional bad luck (or poor refereeing decisions); the notion of hosting a visiting team and looking after them well, of calling close line decisions honestly; those occasions when you lend one of your spare players to the opposition or agree to reduce your team’s numbers to match theirs: this is all good stuff and its importance should not be underestimated. I like the little rituals too: the three cheers, shaking hands, (continued on page 84) thanking the umpire. It sounds hopelessly Victorian, I imagine (believe me, Rudyard Kipling is not leaning over my laptop as I write this), but I’ll say it nonetheless: the ability to remain polite and generous even under the most trying of circumstances is surely a life skill worth learning.
I’ve kept the most important reason to last. We play sport for one reason only, really: it’s good fun. The five years that our pupils stay with us at King’s are, in themselves, a large chunk of their lives. They should enjoy those years and look back on them with fondness. And, boy, they’ll remember their sport. When I coach a hockey team (admittedly at a fairly lowly standard – it used to be the seconds at my previous school, now it’s the U14Cs), I always start the season by saying ‘There’s only one reason we’re here, and that’s to enjoy ourselves. It’s more fun if you win, so we’ll try to do a lot of that. But losing is OK, provided you tried hard and enjoyed yourself.’
Having said all that, what should parents be looking for in a school’s sporting provision? What does this all mean for how sport is organised at a school? This is a personal view, and certainly debatable, but this is how I think it should be …
There should be sport for all. And by that I mean proper coaching and competitive fixtures for as many pupils as possible, not just the elite. If we believe the above benefits apply to all pupils (as I do) then they should be widely available.
There should be a good variety of games. The smaller, boutique sports like fencing or fives or sailing often provide a wonderful haven for those less enamoured of the main juggernauts of rugby, netball, cricket, hockey etc.
There should be widespread staff involvement. Quite frankly, the more the teachers are involved with coaching or managing the sports teams the better. They bring perspective, sanity, humour and experience to what can otherwise become a rarefied, rather joyless and over-pressurised world of professional coaches, dieticians and personal trainers.
Finally, there should be a strong emphasis on the old-fashioned virtues of good manners and sportsmanship, of playing the game hard but never losing perspective, one’s temper or sense of humour. We should value those old school traditions – dressing smartly to arrive and leave, the quick whisky in the common room for the staff, the feast of beans and sausages afterwards, the singing on the coach and the war stories, each gaining in colour as it is re-told.
There is an uncomplicated, old-fashioned, honest joy to be had in sport. You should have seen the delight in the eyes of those U15B rugby players …
Richard Biggs was born and raised in South Africa; he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Pembroke College, Oxford, to read Maths and Philosophy. He won a half blue at fencing, and remains a keen hockey and tennis player. He started his teaching career at Magdalen College School, Oxford, was Second Master at Lancing College and is now in his fifth year as Headmaster of King’s College, Taunton.