…the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’In the triumphalist aftermath of the recently concluded Olympic Games in London (the British team had had its best result at an Olympiad since 1908), Prime Minister David Cameron called for an end to the ‘all must have prizes’ culture that had poisoned the provision of physical education (PE) in British schools for forty years, and a renewed emphasis on competitive sport. The culture to which Cameron was referring took root in the British schools system in the 1960s, in parallel with the move towards ‘comprehensive’ education.
This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead…, while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
This latter policy, which was introduced by the Labour government of the time, involved the closure of grammar schools, many of which were hundreds of years old but seen by left-wing critics as elitist, and secondary modern schools, introduced by a Conservative government in the early 1950s. They were replaced by one-size-fits-all comprehensive schools.
The ostensible rationale behind such schools was to improve the quality of education being offered to those pupils who were less academically inclined, and this goal was probably achieved in some cases, but the practical effect, most of the time, was to drag clever students down to the level of the rest. In fact, being clever was usually viewed as undesirable, because, it was alleged, it dented the self-esteem of those who were not as clever.
This mindset was reinforced by a generation of lecturers with extreme left-wing views, who dominated colleges of education—where future teachers were being trained—at the time. It was a philosophy that also invaded the provision of physical education, leading to types of activity being promoted that bore an uncanny resemblance to the silly Caucus Race in Lewis Carroll’s famous story. Losing in sport was regarded as inimical to the emotional development of children, so competition was not only frowned upon; it was frequently dropped from the curriculum entirely. It is worth noting that the teaching of English grammar was abandoned around the same time for broadly similar reasons (it stifled children’s creativity).
Nevertheless, Cameron’s crass remark betrays an ignorance of how the promotion of competitive sport in schools would actually work. I’m old enough to have had first-hand experience. When I attended my local grammar school in the late 1950s, a games lesson during the winter months consisted of a full-blown game of rugby whatever the weather, although the weather, harsh as it often was, is not what I criticize about my experience. The really galling aspect of my introduction to the world of Kipling’s ‘muddied oafs’ was that the entire game was played out between half the boys on the pitch. I was lucky if I touched the ball twice a term, even though I tried hard to get involved and was often in the right place to receive a pass. The ball carrier always went down in the tackle rather than pass to someone whom they perceived to be one of the ‘wallies’. A similar scenario plays out every time a group of children pick sides for an informal game of football. The weakest are always the last to be chosen.
In fact, Cameron’s comments beg a very important question: what is the purpose of PE in schools? I left school with a fierce dislike of any kind of organized physical activity, and it was entirely fortuitous that, during my first year at university, I discovered a physical activity that I thought was worth doing. I’ve been active ever since. I conclude, therefore, based on my own experience, that the purpose of PE in schools is not to raise a generation of footballers who are good enough to play for Manchester United or rugby players who can beat the All Blacks in their own backyard. The real job of a PE teacher is not to build sports teams that can beat every other school’s teams but to help the weaker children to find a physical activity that they enjoy doing, and perhaps excel at. It doesn’t have to be a competitive sport; running, swimming and cycling are worthwhile in their own right, and it doesn’t matter if someone is never going to become the next Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps or Bradley Wiggins. These activities can be enjoyed without the competition, although a kind of self-competition is probably necessary if the maximum benefit is to be gained.
And there is a major payoff: we are constantly being reminded that obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the developed world, and although it is probably too late to help the current generation of couch potatoes, it is possible to encourage today’s children to adopt more active lifestyles. However, finding the right activity for each individual child is crucially important and will not be an easy task.