Levelling up the playing field

Mark Duncan, director of sport at Windlesham House School, discusses the measures being considered to rebuild sport in school

There are no two ways about it – remote learning or not – the impact on PE and sports for schools throughout Covid-19 has been dramatic, and it will take some time to get things fully back on track again.

As we prepare for a new academic year, we do so again without clarity or assurance of what the coming autumn and winter months will bring. The truth is the wider impact of what has occurred during the pandemic will not be completely clear until more time has passed, and schools have had time to identify the knock-on effects of skills gaps. That said, there are two rather obvious areas that have been impacted on first glance.

Much of the technical advancement in sport relies somewhat unglamorously on the drip, drip effect of time spent learning and then repeating those skills. Equally, the accelerated learning provided by working alongside and competing with peers from both inside and outside of the school community is invaluable, not to mention the emotional and social advantages of playing sport with others.

In both cases, remote learning – no matter how successful – could never completely bridge the gap for sport, and for many schools there has been clear evidence of this during the summer term, where standards among non-club players will have been noticeably lower.

Fixtures for the future

Many schools will have introduced an extensive array of intra-school competitions during last autumn term to support pupils in maintaining skills and this was absolutely invaluable in minimising the impact in these areas.

Indeed, with a greater array of sports played and more mixed sport than ever before, there have been doubtless silver linings to the greyness of the Covid cloud. In some cases, new experiences and new ways of doing things will have opened new doors and reinvigorated young minds, some of which will become fixtures in the future even as we return to more normal times.

For sports departments, the start of a new school year will see a need to continually assess levels of confidence and skills while adapting – whether that be at the planning stages, in the adjustment of the level of competitive opportunities, or in running booster/catch-up sessions for certain individuals or groups during break times and also after-school sessions.

At prep school age, the natural ability of children to adapt and soak up new input like a sponge may well mean that the problem will not be as bad as we might first imagine. Particularly in core team sports, each year we see a reinforcement of basic skills within fun game play at the heart of any session and as such, much of the catch up will happen organically.

Reducing the match load

Allied to this, another unexpected silver lining of the change of routine and, in particular, the lack of matches, might mean less teaching ‘to the next match’, and more re-establishing of core skills if needed. Sport at prep school is essentially all about having fun, and fun in this case does not need to hinge on the next result. It is not ludicrous to suggest that we might even find that some children are ahead of where they might have been in some respects and will feel under less pressure to perform.

Beyond this there is a valuable opportunity to look afresh at sports programmes and possibly redress the balance in a sector which has always been very match-heavy. Health, happiness, physical literacy and all-round wellbeing are always at the heart of everything we do.

Sports departments are fast recognising that children won’t be losing out by not having their normal match load and may indeed be in a better position mentally as we head into the new term. Activities such as yoga, Zumba, and strength and conditioning may form a part of this rebalancing for some schools, and this is to be embraced.

While some children and parents may still have concerns about missed time on the technical aspects of their favourite sports, this is likely to have little impact on their future progression.

Many schools will subscribe to the theory that there is little to be gained by early specialisation in team sports and that an all-around physical education has always been the best preparation for success and levelling up the playing field later in life.

Purpose and direction

One thing that all schools, sports departments and outside clubs will be striving for this term is to nurture a love of physical activity in all of its many forms. Sport is a fantastic vehicle for boosting confidence, building mental health, improving physical health and making positive lifestyle choices. It also helps our pupils to make friends and gives purpose and direction.

One thing is for sure, the return of school sport last term was very welcome across the entire school community and while there might have been one or two more technical errors than we would have foreseen during other past summers, they were dwarfed by the huge numbers of smiles on the faces of pupils, teachers and parents alike.

More sport: Why mental health is topping the podium in school sport

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