At 5.30 pm last Friday, there were only two activities left taking place on the school site at King Edward’s, one was a sevens rugby practice, the other was an indoor cricket net. Why would this be? After all, this is a highly academic school and there is homework to be done, and plenty of it. Why would independent schools give more time to sport than to any other subject, spend more money on sport than on any other department, spend more time celebrating sport than any other topic?
Well, there are good reasons and plenty of them. The first, and most ancient, reason is necessity, or was necessity, especially for the boarding schools. Since children cannot be taught all the time without the risk of mutiny, physical activity was the great Other which allowed schools to exist. The second is a form of necessity, too, a kind of biological or genetic necessity. Sport is something that growing children want to do: no one forces the majority of boys and girls to run around, or to be competitive, or to want to be in a team or to care more about the score on Saturday or the house match at 2.30 than a Latin test. It is the way they are.
However, sport has become more than the acceptance of necessity in independent schools. Sport exists in schools precisely because it does what it is meant to do. Sport does enable pupils to enrich their lives with shared and memorable experiences: a game distils and concentrates life and we don’t forget such moment. Sport does teach us the value of practice and effort and gives us the cause of trying and the effect of success in a short time frame. Sport does teach us how to work with others in teams, to lead and to follow, to muck in and get on with it. And it does teach us to cope with disappointment and success: there is much talk of resilience these days and a run of low scores requires quite a bit of that. Sport also provides in other ways, too. In schools, especially highly academic schools, it does provide different pupils many different ways of being successful and sport, more than most subjects in the curriculum, is likely to provide activities and enthusiasms for the future. And I haven’t even mentioned the increasingly significant role of sport in health and the fight against the world’s growing lack of fitness.
This evening I was tidying my study, another act of necessity, and came upon some notes from the head of recruitment at Shell. He said that Shell cares for personal qualities above all things, clarity of thought, persistence and resilience, passion and the willingness to lead, relationships with others, the ability to cope with the unexpected. I don’t suppose that many young people play sport with the express purpose of working for Shell, but it certainly looks as though it might be a desirable side effect of having a great time.