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Where Have All the Coaches Gone?

by Neil Rollings

School sport has become increasingly dependent upon part time, external coaches. Few people think this is a great idea, but it is a simple, and cheap, expedient when the minimum number of staff required to operate the programme cannot be met by a school’s own resources.

Schools who built their programme on an assumption that classroom teachers were able and willing to coach games are particularly vulnerable to this shortage. This model is creaking in many schools. It is a perfect storm. At the same time as parents demand a higher standard of coaching at all levels, and schools are offering a wider variety of sports than ever before, the number of teachers prepared to commit the time necessary to run teams, especially at weekends, is at an all-time low. The historic assumption that this time was given out of goodwill is questioned, as teachers see their colleagues begin their weekend on Friday afternoon, whilst they are committed to games which take much of Saturday. When the commitment of pupils cannot be assumed, and the task requires officiating before a critical audience of parents, the prospect become exponentially less attractive.

Girls’ schools never created the same dependency on generalist coaching. Their model of specialist teachers has many advantages – but capacity isn’t one of them. In order to match the extent of the programmes their co-educational competitors provide, they also depend on a peripatetic workforce to supplement their full time teachers.

It is easy to lapse into a culture of adding. As vacancies occur, a simple expedient is to throw at the problem the relatively small amounts of money necessary to hire an ‘outside’ coach. The theory is sound, and appears, at face value, to solve the problem. However, this assumes that there is a potential coaching workforce eager to be employed by schools for a couple of hours at a time. Finding this capacity, of adequate quality, is an increasing challenge for schools who have grown to depend upon these people.

When the pandemic struck, and the economics of schools were thrown into unprecedented turmoil, the part time coaches were the first to be dispensed with. Few had any employment rights, and they disappeared quickly. Some found alternative employment in the new growth industries, and discovered that being an Amazon driver was a more reliable and lucrative living than being a peripatetic sports coach.

As schools return to full capacity, staffing problems are recurring. Those teachers who got used to additional leisure time at weekends during lockdown are sometimes slow to resume a full commitment to school sport. And there are fewer part time ‘outside’ coaches to take up the slack. The sector can no longer depend upon this nebulous workforce to fill in the gaps.

Peripateic games coaches were never the perfect answer. Unseen in the corridors where much of the culture of school sport is established, unfamiliar with pupils, processes and the standards of school sport, they were often an unsatisfactory expedient. Getting the good ones depended too much on luck, and was therefore unsustainable. As demand exceeds supply, quality of applicants inevitably declines to the stage where schools are grateful to find anyone at all to fill some gaps.

The answer is not to reform this system, but to transform it. Finding more, barely adequate, scarcely committed, part time coaches able to do an average job is not the answer. The staffing of school sport needs an overhaul that will enable it to deliver sustainable, higher quality programmes into the future. That will not be achieved by tempting a few Amazon drivers back into their tracksuits.