Sport has been an amazingly stable dimension of independent schools since the 19th century. Whilst most other areas of school life have come and gone, the time dedicated to sport, and the enthusiasm for team games have remained inviolate. When compulsory rugby and cricket were first installed as a feature of the sector, the rest of the curriculum was largely limited to Latin and Greek.
Over the last 10 years, this landscape has changed significantly. The primacy of team games is being challenged on all fronts: rugby is too dangerous for some constituencies and cricket is too time-consuming. The assumed meritocracy of school teams is under pressure from a groundswell of democracy that does not accept that opportunity is ability dependent.
The arms race of facility development has been predominantly in indoor facilities, which establish unprecedented alternatives to outdoor games. Added to this, the increased currency of academic achievement has questioned the time devoted to games, with an objectivity that would have been considered seditious in previous eras.
What are the implications for the future of this sector-defining characteristic of independent education? The first is the need to justify the benefits of investment. The time, energy and commitment of previous times are now no longer assumed. Most schools spend more time on physical activities than maths. The benefits of this to all pupils will need to be more clearly articulated and supported by science.
The compulsion to take part in specific activities, principally team games, will erode. Generations of schoolchildren who learned to loathe games at the hands of sadistic bullies on windswept playing fields might applaud this. The introduction of choice will create pressure to make the games experience more widely positive, and to replace compulsion with a culture in which it is cool to be active. This will have implications for coaching methods and team management. The coach-centred approach, which required a commentary shouted from the touchline every Saturday may come to be replaced by an experience which puts the player at the heart of the experience. This might be accompanied by a recognition that there isn’t an Under 12 World Cup.
High performance will continue to be a dominant feature of the sector. Mechanisms to support elite athletes will continue to become sophisticated, and specialist staffing from former professional players will continue to gather pace. The best players will get better and better, and they will focus themselves in a small number of ultra-elite organisations.
Inevitably, given the expansion of facilities, programmes will become more diverse. The assumption that all pupils can be engaged by traditional team games has always been false. The future may more willingly accept this, and provide a meaningful alternative programme to complement rugby, hockey and cricket. In line with trends in physical activity in wider society, some of this will include mass participation events which are not focused narrowly on competition. However reluctantly in some quarters, the sector is coming to recognise that health promoting exercise is a legitimate end in itself. The lavish conditioning facilities sprouting up in most schools will come to support not only athletic conditioning for high performance, but also lower intensity physical activity that improves physical and mental health for those not engaged by outdoor competition. The emerging science of how exercise contributes to learning, memory and concentration will become more widely recognised as a justification for exercise. Only in this way can physical activity come to impact positively on the lives of all children. And finally… Parents will become educated in wider success criteria than who finishes school matches with most goals.
The future will be significantly different from the past. It will be more closely rooted in science, more diverse and inclusive. This won’t detract significantly from the team games programme which has always characterised independent schools. They will always have a dominant position. However, it might be that meaningful provision will go beyond this, and reflect a more logical and intellectual justification for the considerable investment in sports. A school that genuinely aimed to prepare pupils for a lifetime of being physically active would not be seeking to maintain a 19th-century programme.