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Preparing for Longer Term Disruption to School Sport

by Neil Rollings

When the autumn term started, only a month ago, there was considerable optimism surrounding prospects for sport in the schools’ sector.  Last minute changes in government legislation had made full forms of Hockey and Soccer possible, and there was considerable momentum developing.  Some schools restored diluted forms of inter-school competition immediately, and most expected to do so shortly after half term.  The RFU made significant steps down the Return to Play roadmap, and there was reason to believe that the full version of even that game would be in place by early November.  The recovery of school sport seemed well underway.

The trajectory of restoration, however, stalled dramatically last week.  Raising levels of virus transmission in society necessitated government announcements of new restrictions, and risk management processes.  Almost overnight, the implications of this for school sport seemed to sabotage the anticipated timescales of return to competition.  A despairing gloom appeared to descend over the sector, resulting from the grim realisation that the pandemic was far from over.  Long term disruption to schools suddenly seemed inevitable.

This presents new challenges for the leaders of school sport.   Firstly, there is an issue of morale.  Without a return to sports fixtures on the horizon, staff, pupils and parents have to adjust to new expectations. Secondly, the current emergency programmes need to be sustainable.  Many schools had created unseasonal variety by adopting summer term sports (with or without external fixtures) through September, assisted by helpful weather.  As these now conclude, winter sports take over.  Whether it is possible to sustain a whole term (or more) of the normal autumn term activities without the stimulus of preparing for competition is, as yet, unknown.  Similarly, whether touch Rugby and amended Netball will command the usual level of enthusiasm, and maintain it for the next ten weeks, is uncertain.

Extra-curricular programmes present a further challenge.   Conventionally dominated by team preparation and inter-school competition, a bigger void now exists than appears within the timetable.  Schools offering Saturday programmes during September have been pleasantly surprised by the level of engagement, many reporting greater pupil involvement than with the regular competition offer.  Schools teams are a zero sum game, where the number of participants is limited.  Alternative opportunities are unlimited.

Without regular extra curricular sport there is a real danger of lasting, long term damage to the concept.  If pupils, parents and staff lose the habit of commitment to school sport, it will be difficult to restore post-pandemic.  Schools need to be wary of the legacy impact, and be informed by the experience of industrial action in the 1980s.  Much of the school sport of that era, which was believed to have been temporarily postponed, never, in fact returned.

School sport through the pandemic is about much more than whether it is possible to play game X or game Y.  it is about the enduring outcomes.  What is possible in the programme may shift with the varying levels of restrictions which seem destined to oscillate in the short term.  It is important to maintain a close awareness of the desirable outcomes.  These are no different from any other year.  Lifelong engagement with healthy, active lifestyles, levels of personal fitness, experience of culturally significant games, sport as a social experience which contributes to personal wellbeing, the opportunity to develop skills, commitment, and determination: these objectives remain as consistent and important as ever.  The joy of movement, the fun of games with friends and the excitement of competition.  The programme that delivers this may have to change, possibly for longer than anticipated.  Creativity in achieving this will be essential. 

However, the purposes of physical activity in schools remains as stable – and important - as ever.