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What's the Future for School Swimming?

Posted Friday, 24 January 2020

Facilities for swimming in schools are better than they have ever been.  Pools were a primary weapon in the arms race of development.   Many schools have beautiful, bright, inspiring pools, and changing facilities to match.  Rare now is the grim, dark and cold forbidding swimming environment of the mid-twentieth century.

It would be reasonable to assume that this has heralded a new era of enthusiasm for this activity.  But this would be wrong.  In most schools, there is less swimming than previously, especially among teenage pupils.  With an obligation to maximise facility use, teachers in charge of school swimming face an uphill task.

The ability to swim is an uncontroversial aim for every school.  It is surprising therefore, that so few schools can boast that every one of their pupils can swim 100 metres of a recognised stroke.  And that so few pupils opt for swimming where it appears as an option within the games programme.

Competitive swimming clouds the landscape.  Historical programmes were based on this, and facilities for this activity are often amazing.  Touch timing devices produce times to several decimal places and could ratify world records.  But the number of schools that have a vibrant programme of competitive swimming is extremely small – and diminishing.  Whilst the standards at national competitions remain high, this is often because club swimmers who have embraced the extreme levels of training required to excel in this activity have briefly swapped their club hats for school ones.  Matches between schools are often between incomplete, or hastily assembled, teams.  Press gangs are often necessary to complete the team.  This is not entirely surprising, when the experience often involves travelling for an hour, sitting on the poolside for another hour in order to swim a single two length race.  It’s an outdated offer for the modern pupil.

Added to this is the reluctance of body-conscious teenagers to subject themselves to the scrutiny that swimming costumes expose.  Combined with an aversion to wet hair, many older pupils will go to considerable lengths to avoid the school pool, however appealing it looks in the prospectus.  At the same time, swimming has become the fitness activity of choice for many adults.  It’s a perverse irony.

What is the future?  School swimming needs to re-boot itself, and clarify its rationale.  Shifting the focus away from competition, and the extreme training that accompanies it, swimming needs to re-invent itself as a life skill and fitness activity.  This will require a much more creative approach - to present the activity in a more engaging way, and to be more inventive in the range of aquatic activities available.  Success in swimming should go beyond a tiny number of pupils swimming 50 metres under Olympic rules in a time that is good for 50 metres.  The number of pupils who choose to visit the pool in the week, the take up of aquatic based options in the games programme, and the range of popular pool-based activities are all at least as important, often more so.  The number of Sixth Formers who swim regularly would be another strong indication of a successful programme.

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Is January Really the Best Time for Outdoor Netball?

Posted Friday, 17 January 2020

Netball in UK is on the crest of a wave.  This follows the unprecedented success of the national team, and a widely televised home World Cup played in front of packed crowds.  It has a higher profile than ever before, and this is reflected in the popularity of the youth game in clubs and schools.

It has a lot of advantages over the other team games played by girls in schools.  It doesn’t require the same specialist facilities as Hockey, and the entry level of skill is lower than both Hockey and Lacrosse.  Only Soccer rivals it for accessibility, and Netball is much longer established.  The game is easily understood, and can be satisfactorily played at a range of ages and skill levels.  Its introductory version, High Fives, provides a transition to the complexities of the full game.

Most of the countries in the world who play this game have warm climates.  Australia, Jamaica, South Africa, Uganda, Malawi.  It is a game which suits a warm environment. At the higher levels, it is an indoor game.  The court is small, and movement is structurally restricted by the rules.  Uniquely, players can’t move when in possession of the ball.  It is the only game where shots at goal are made by a stationary player.  It is made for a genial environment

In the UK, however, it is a winter game - played predominantly outdoors.  The season proper in co-ed schools starts in the first week in January.  Outdoors.  The first two weeks of term have been cold, wet and windy.  Any progress and enjoyment will have been despite the environment, not because of it.  Goal Shooters and Goal Keepers, sentenced to inhabit a small circle, will have spent a lot of time standing still. 

The outfit doesn’t help either.  The skimpiest dresses imaginable, designed for the indoor game and warm climates, provide little protection against the bleak mid-winter.  Protective additions are often frowned upon.  It’s great testament to the appeal of the game that many girls are still keen to play despite all this.  Inadequately clothed girls are still turning up in Arctic conditions for after school practices on outdoor courts in the dark. 

Why is it done like this?  There can be few people who believe that this is the best Netball experience that can be devised.  It is largely because of the power of status quo.  It’s always been done like this.  When boys’ schools became co-educational, it was the vacant part of the calendar once the Hockey pitches reverted to use by boys.  The national competitions run through the winter – but that is a choice that the game makes.

Given the option, when would Netball enthusiasts probably choose to play the game?  Probably in May and June, when it’s light, bright and warm.  And it's a pleasure to be outside.  The clothing might be more appropriate for this time of year.  Ironically, this is the stage of the school year when girls’ sports alternatives are least satisfactory.  There is an urgent need for a game that is more active than Rounders, more engaging than Field Athletics, with a lower entry level of skill than Tennis and shorter duration than Cricket.  Netball and Soccer are the outstanding candidates for this position.

Radical thinking, and sector collaboration, would be necessary to achieve this.  So, it’s probably not imminent.

Written by Neil Rollings, January 2020

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Is the Time Right for PE and Games?

Posted Thursday, 9 January 2020

Nobody envies the timetable architect in any school.  It is impossible to please everyone, and there is a danger that the compromise satisfies no one. If there was a perfect way, it would have been discovered long ago.  The search for the perfect model continues through endless experimentation.

Some subjects suffer more than others from inappropriate time allocations.  PE and Games probably head that list, with timings that need to accommodate unique factors such as changing times, movement to facilities that are often on the margins of a school site – sometimes even a bus ride away.

Within the subject lies a range of activities which each have different optimum timings.  Swimming and gymnastics are entirely different from Netball – which is different again from Cricket.  There are additional factors to consider such as the inevitability that many outdoor lessons will take place in imperfect weather.

It is, however, remarkable how many schools operate timetables that significantly disadvantage PE and Games.  It is widely recognised that physical activity needs to make itself attractive to pupils, but less commonly acknowledged that inappropriate lesson length is a major factor which determines pupil (and teacher) engagement.  Sessions face the constant challenge of being long enough to ensure progression within and between lessons, but short enough to be able to maintain enthusiasm and physical output.

Games sessions vary in length from 40 minutes to two and a half hours.  Often an afternoon – especially Wednesday - is allocated to allow time for school matches.  An unintended consequence of this is to leave the pupils not selected for teams with a forbiddingly long ordeal.  These are the things that fuel disengagement. 

Schools should be informed by the lengths of time that adults choose for exercise.  Swimming and running rarely exceeds 30 minutes: sports teams train for between 60 and 90 minutes.  When the weather is bad, it is frequently abbreviated.

PE and Games has a challenge to impact positively on all pupils.  Government guidelines specify a total weekly time allocation, but not how it should be distributed.  Anyone who has taught games to small children, reluctant adolescents or in cold and windy weather will testify that the length of the session is a vital factor impacting lesson quality.  The subject needs to lobby powerfully to influence the timetable.  It may be the most significant single factor.

Even lesson time is a misleading metric.  The relevant factor is the amount of activity time: what’s left after the travelling, changing, registering, and equipment distribution.  For the subject to have maximum impact, the great majority of PE classes would benefit from 30-40 minutes activity time, with outdoor games sessions having 60-75 minutes.  Then the subject stands best chance of realising its twin ambitions: engagement and progress.

Neil Rollings, 9 January 2020

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Are the Glory Days of the Alphabet Game Over?

Posted Friday, 13 December 2019

The 1990s were the peak of the Alphabet Game in school sport.  This reflected pressure from parents who all wanted their children to be in a school team, and heralded an unprecedented era of inclusivity.  There was an exponential growth in the number of teams which schools operated in every principal sport.  It became a badge of honour, and an accepted metric of a successful programme, to have B,C and D teams.  Large schools delved further into the alphabet.  Every Saturday required a massive exercise in logistics to move these armies of teams around the country.  Bus companies thrived, as did the providers of the ingredients for the standard match tea of sausage and chips.

It wasn’t always like that.  Originally, schools had only internal matches, usually between Houses.  When games were first codified, and schools had teams which played “foreign” matches against rival establishments, there was only one team.  In some schools it is still called “The XI” or “The XV”.  It was a bunch of gladiatorial athletes, who “represented” the school, defending its honour on the proxy field of battle. Between the late 19th, and the late 20th centuries, everything changed.  Meritocracy gave way to democracy, and there were teams and opportunities for everyone.  Mass participation was a defining feature of school sport.  It was widely adopted.  It looked like it would last for ever.

Only 25 years later, much has changed.  There are fewer pupils in UK schools playing traditional team sports than ever before.  The alphabet game has maintained some currency with the youngest years.  However, every year that goes by sees a reduction in teenage teams.  Sixth form matches, especially on a Saturday, are at a low not seen before.  The flagship games of the industry, Rugby Football and Cricket, are the most vulnerable.  Saturday 2nd teams in both sports are disappearing in many schools, especially in the day sector.  The proportion of girls playing Saturday matches in the summer term is tiny.  The alphabet is eroding: the D went first, the C has followed.  B is under threat, especially at Under 16.

The reasons are plural.  The honour of selection no longer has the currency it did, parental commitment has become more flimsy and the workforce of classroom teachers who willingly managed weekend sports teams has faded in the face of increased exam pressure and eroded generosity of time.  The appetite of schools for the battle to pressgang a team to take the field against another’s school’s reluctant conscripts has waned. 

Ironically, there are now more specialist sports coaches in schools than ever before.  The independent sector has become a career route for former professional players.  Coaching has never been more intensive, or technical.  Fewer pupils play than ever before, but the ones who do are at a better standard than ever.  The impact of the high profile coaches is on a smaller games playing population.  It’s a bigger investment for a smaller return.  In the inverted economics of school sport, the pupils who benefit most often contribute least in fee income, as they mostly enjoy discounts through sports awards.

The gulf between theory and reality has also widened.  Some fixture cards, once tablets of stone, could now be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Outstanding Works of Fiction.  The new reality is that there is less disgrace attached to the call of shame cancelling the B team on Friday.  Actually, it isn’t a call any more.  It has become a peremptory text message.  And a sad faced emoji.  Fixtures made six months before, and proudly published, are a basis for negotiation.  And the negotiation is always downwards, sometimes dramatically so. Teenage whim determines how many become reality.  The bus companies are accustoming themselves to the late cancellation.  The sausages are thrown away.

What’s the future?  The week by week uncertainty, the desperate attempt to maintain the fiction that nothing has changed, will have to end.  It will replaced by a rationalisation of what is realistically achievable.  It will not be the end.  Maybe the Alphabet Game was always too ambitious and unsustainable.  Perhaps it is settling down to a sustainable future. There will always be a proportion of the school population which readily engages with team games, and for whom the Saturday fixture is the high point of the week.  And some staff who believe in the value of sport, and match their commitment.  But there just won’t be as many of either as there used to be.

Neil Rollings, December 2019

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Book Review - 'The Infinite Game' by Simon Sinek

Posted Friday, 13 December 2019

The premise of this book is the distinction between “finite” games that exist for a fixed period of time and have a winner and a loser, and “infinite” games, which last indefinitely and have no winner: there is only ahead and behind.  The author suggests that this is mindset, which influences behaviour and decisions.

Organisations which adopt a finite mindset seek short term gain, but this comes at a cost.  They tend to lag behind in innovation, discretionary effort and, ultimately, performance.  By contrast, leaders who embrace an infinite mindset build stronger, more innovative and more inspiring organisations. Their people trust one another and their leaders. They have the resilience to thrive in an ever changing world, and their success is enduring.

The book has considerable significance for schools, and for school sport.  The short term aim of winning matches does not build a stable programme.  Regarding opponents as “worthy rivals” allows a lasting collaboration to mutual benefit, which enables the system to thrive and maintain stability.  This approach makes the sector better, from which everyone gains, rather than the pursuit of shirt term victory, and the expense of others.

“The Infinite Game” will be of interest to educationalists looking to lead their schools or departments to lasting achievement, which is never completed.  There is no winner in the game of education, because there is no final whistle.

Also recommended by the same author:

“Leaders Eat Last” and “Start with Why”

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Should the Half Game Rule end at Under 15?

Posted Friday, 6 December 2019

No one would dispute the spirit of the RFU’s recently introduced rule requiring all members of a match day squad to participate in at least half of the available game time.  Those marginal players standing on winter touchlines hoping for a few minutes at the end of a match whose result is already decided was never an edifying picture.

For much of school rugby, this has made little difference, merely formalising existing good practice.  At the engagement levels of the game, the spirit of this rule is not new.  The changing landscape of school rugby – under unprecedented threat for a cocktail of factors led by safety concerns – has meant that retaining a critical mass of willing players is a priority for all schools at all levels.  There are fewer boys playing rugby in schools than at any stage in the last 100 years: the game needs all the support it can find.  Disengaging players by denying them a share of game time is not in anyone’s interests.

However, like any rule, there are unintended consequences. One of them is the denial of flexibility to coaches to take decisions which may be in the best interests of pupils, the game or safety.  Bound by inflexible rules, experienced teachers can no longer protect the fragile players from an unexpectedly robust encounter, or give the aspiring young player a taste of a bigger stage.  In smaller schools, where the range of ability within a team is greatest, management of the quality of the game, and the experience of each pupil, is an art which does not conform to a simple mathematical formula.

School rugby is subtly different from the club game on Sunday mornings.  Coaches are often more experienced, not being confined to the duration of the rugby career of their own children.  They have, by definition, experience and qualifications in education and its pastoral implications.  There will be rogue coaches, seeking inventive ways to game the system and circumvent the rule to win the game – but they are a minority.

By the age of 16, there are no schools where Rugby is compulsory.  Boys choose to play it – or not.  Those decisions are made primarily on the quality of the experience.  Where this is good, pupils remain engaged with the game.  It is market led, and schools cannot afford to operate the game in a way which loses players.  Therefore a rule whose aim is engagement is less relevant.  Also, the imbalance of standard between teams is accentuated by the half game rule.  The best teams have deeper squads, and more good players.  There is more difference in standard between the weakest players in the squad, than the strongest.  The interchange of players makes the best teams even better, and results in more uncompetitive games.  Teams with international players can not remove them from the game to even it up; even the best players must have their half share of the game.

There is a place for the half game rule.  But its greatest impact is in the pre-maturation game, where players have different levels of maturity, size and experience.  The rule can go some way to evening this, and maintaining involvement in the game for longer.  But post maturation the situation is different.  Players in the school environment are more experienced, size and speed have evened out more, and those less suited to the game have had the opportunity to leave it behind.  The conscripts have been replaced by self-motivated volunteers.  And the standard of competition has changed.  The top schools rival academy teams in standard, but are bound by the same rules as the Under 12 club game. 

The half game rule should be celebrated as an initiative of inclusivity.  But its impact is at the engagement levels of the game.  And, therefore, maybe it should only apply up to Under 15.

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