In the 1970s, the then Sports Council came up with a number of campaigns designed to improve levels of physical activity within various groups in society. The laudable generic title was ‘Sport for All’. Few things have survived intact from the era of long hair and flared trousers, but this title is different. It is alive and well in schools, often cited to suggest a programme which aspires to provide for all pupils. Presumably, the alternative would be ‘Sport only for the Athletically Able’. That would be a less catchy title and an uncomfortable philosophy. Despite the fact that it is often what is delivered.
It is, however, a redundant, historical expression, which obscures the landscape of physical activity in schools. Part of the issue is with the word ‘sport’. It is instructive that the physical life of a school has no agreed nomenclature with which all constituencies are comfortable. Sport, games, PE, exercise, training: all describe some dimensions of the offer, but all are unsatisfactory in some respect. All of these forms of packaging carry with them connotations that are unwelcome to some. The insistence on preferring the expression ‘sport’ over the logically generic ‘physical activity’ reflects the longstanding primacy attached to competitive team games in the sector. The Director of Sport implies a priority: competition, usually with a focus on traditional activities.
If sport means competitive activities – team games or otherwise – then it was never for all, and never will be. Rigidly compulsory programmes of rugby, cricket, hockey and netball may have suggested a veneer of universal appeal, but that was always far from the case. More adults reflect that they hated their experience of school games, than those who loved them. And the experience was entirely meritocratic. The athletic, early developed kids got a better deal – coaching, competition, recognition, better relationships with staff – these were the unquestioned lot of the games players. Science shows that some people are engaged by competition, some are neutral and some are stressed by it. School games programmes, however, are designed exclusively by (and for) the first group: people produced by a system which makes a contest of everything and values the winners above all else.
Sport for All came to be adopted by schools when they started to soften the compulsion and offer alternatives, with the loose aim of providing variety to engage the team games refugees. Often the standard of this provision was, and still is, poor. This was because the resources were dominated by the athletic kids, and also to ensure that the alternative activities didn’t become too appealing – to the extent that they might threaten the critical mass of team players required to fulfil the fixture list.
The mantra was trotted out that variety would enable all pupils to find a physical activity of choice that would last a lifetime. There was no science to support this. Lifetime physical activity results from positive attitudes being developed in schools, rather than any specific set of sports skills. Disengagement from physical activity is rarely activity-specific. Rugby refugees are not rescued from the prospect of a sedentary adulthood through the opportunity to play youth club-style badminton in the sixth form.
Health and fitness has always had a curiously low profile in the physical life of schools. Strength and conditioning for athletic performance is the glamour side of functional training: building healthy, active lifestyles for all pupils is a mysteriously lower priority. It doesn’t attract headlines or fill the trophy cabinet. The results are not read out in assembly. There is frequently a Head of Strength and Conditioning, who works with a small number of elite athletes: counterintuitively, there is rarely a Head of Health and Fitness.
Active lifestyles are the equivalent of tidying the shed: everyone agrees that it’s a good idea, but not one that schools ever get round to really doing much about. Talk is cheap. Despite massive infrastructure improvements resulting from the arms race of sports facility developments, few schools have a strong culture of health and fitness. Robust research shows how exercise improves learning, memory and concentration at a cellular level, but this science is curiously invisible in schools. The possibility for genuine universal benefit is inexplicably overlooked.
There is a very good case against playing rugby and hockey. There is a cogent case against long games of cricket in the exam season. (There is, however, an equal case for the benefits of these games.) But there is no sound argument against healthy, active lifestyles. Chasing a ball will always be compelling for some children, and adults. That is great. Athletic prowess will always command the admiration of the young. The health, social and emotional benefits can be enormous, and sports will always have a rightly cherished place in schools.
The higher-quality the provision, the greater the number of pupils who will be engaged by them. But that number will never be 100% of teenagers. It never was. It never will be. It’s not for All.
It’s time to retire ‘Sport for All’ as an expression, and replace it with something more appropriate and meaningful. It has had a good innings, but it is time to declare. Sport will never be for all, but exercise and health could be.
Physical activity for all is a legitimate ambition for all schools. It is not ability-dependent. This would include a strong offer of team games, and the pursuit of high performance for a minority of pupils. It would include alternative games as well. But to achieve a universal impact (the ‘All’), it needs to go far beyond sport, competition and games. And all the baggage they bring with them. Perhaps the forward-thinking schools will have a genuine commitment to meaningful Physical Activity for All, and appreciate that this is not inconsistent with some pupils having considerable success in competitive sports. Performance and participation are not mutually exclusive.
Independent Coach Education: independentcoacheducation.co.uk