In a previous piece for this magazine’s launch supplement, I wrote about the central importance of sport to our schools: but onto every life, onto every school and onto most May cricket matches, a little rain must fall.
Indeed, the metaphorical rain falls onto every day of the summer term and its sports, and I’d go so far as to say that summer sport, especially for those over 16, is in danger of drowning. This term, around the country, I have heard of skeleton 1st XIs and non-existent 2nd Xis, and of serious sporting schools with no senior athletics teams. Even big boarding schools, with all their pupils on site, can’t always get 3rd XIs out, while prep schools have given up on Saturday fixtures because the children have got tutoring for grammar school entry.
And it can get worse still: I found myself ordering boys to play an Under 14 school tennis match rather than spend the weekend revising for internal exams. It’s not easy for a Head Master to tell boys that internal exams don’t really matter, although I do believe that no boy or girl has ever learned anything of value on a Saturday afternoon when the sun is shining.
The reasons for this flood of problems are not hard to find. Since the invention of Curriculum 2000, with its AS Levels and attendant modules and retakes, the British education system has garlanded the last three years of our pupils’ lives with exams upon exams upon exams. Not only that, but the significance of those exams seems to get greater every year. We tell our pupils that GCSEs and AS Levels are vital for university entry and A Levels are absolutely vital for university entry, and pupils and parents have taken us at our word.
The pressure on the first half of the term has increased as schools cross over to IGCSEs, which take place even earlier than GCSEs, and Sixth Form pupils with AS Level retakes and A2 modules are now occupied for weeks on end. We might have hoped that this lurch to the front of the term might have opened up some space after Half Term, but by then the minds – and often the bodies – of our pupils are elsewhere.
I have one final reason for concern and lament. Summer’s lease is brief, and it is not helped when other sports like hockey encroach on to it. I don’t like it when Under 14 cricketers ask not to play for the school because there’s a county hockey tournament the next day. “For everything there is a season,” Ecclesiastes tells us. I wish that winter sports read that passage more regularly.
So, for all my naturally sunny disposition, I’d say that summer sport is in need of some serious care and attention. Perhaps the one clear and positive benefit from Mr Gove’s A Level reforms will be the decline in Year 12 exams. If you can’t wait that long, you could always introduce the International Baccalaureate Diploma: at least IB candidates can play sport in year 12 and finish exams by Half Term.
However, sport needs to change and is changing: schools are playing shorter matches on May Saturdays, or playing more locally, or even getting their matches done on a Friday evening. We may need to make more creative use of the second half of the term, constructing fixture lists, tournaments and festivals that will attract. And then, of course, there is the Big Idea, of playing cricket in the first half of the autumn term. Then we could see how much the winter sports enjoy having their pitches and their seasons invaded.
I don’t know what the answers are, but we cannot pretend that there is not a serious question to be answered.
John Claughton is Chief Master of King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and chairman of the HMC Sports Committee