Uniquely, there have been two returns to school this academic year. The first was at the start of the autumn term, and the second, most recently, a few days ago. Both were accompanied by restrictions never previously experienced in UK schools. Creative thinking, and new practices, were required. School sport was no different. Instead of returning to the usual, strictly defined, seasons dictated by historic programmes of school competition, there was a new freedom. No received wisdom, nor long tradition, influenced what a sports programme should look like during a pandemic. Schools were able to do whatever they thought was best.
One of the results has been a blurring of the usual seasons. September saw a profusion of activities which suited the climate, and the underfoot conditions, but which would normally be confined to the “summer term”. It became clear that Cricket, Tennis and Athletics could thrive in the early autumn, and co-exist alongside a more gradual introduction of winter sports. Additional evidence revealed that Rugby and Hockey didn’t have to be a race to put teams into competition on the first Saturday of term, preceded by intense training of adolescent bodies which had spent the previous 8 weeks in a state of stupor.
Schools returning this week have shown considerable flexibility in their plans for sport either side of the easter holiday. It is likely that a range of summer and winter sports will again co-exist throughout that period. There is a drive to make up some of the missed seasons of Netball, Hockey and different codes of Football by accommodating them in the summer term. However, this is also an acknowledgement that the climate in April and May might better support these activities, and a recognition that the number of pupils keenly engaged by the regular seasonal diet of Cricket, Athletics and Tennis, is limited and shrinking. None of these activities thrive on cool days or on damp fields.
The principal factor which has permitted this flexibility and experimentation is the absence of inter-school matches, and national competitions. It has revealed that the historic, fixed seasons of school sport have become a strait jacket that confines the programme. It also pressures the resources and presents a challenge to quality control. If all girls play Hockey simultaneously in the autumn, the pitches and coaches can’t accommodate them; the same issue simply shifts location, and ball size, if everyone moves to Netball in the spring. Girls’ schools have long experimented with ways of accommodating more than one winter sport, but have had to interface with the more inflexible programmes of their co-ed competitors. In a programme driven by fixed competitive seasons, the pupils exist for the benefit of the school sports teams, not the other way round. Netballs and footballs are put away on a random date determined by a religious festival, and give way to the uninspiring sight of the annual long jump lesson in unsympathetic April conditions.
One of the reasons that schools have a fixed season is to ensure that all pupils are available to support school teams in a single sport. It is the most efficient way of channelling athletic resources in pursuit of competitive success. Without that pressure, it is clear that there are other ways of structuring the programme that might have advantages for a wider spectrum of pupils. Schools returning post-pandemic report that their focus in restoring team games will be on “fun and the social benefits” of playing with friends. Prioritising these outcomes would seem a legitimate ambition at any time, not one confined to the recovery from Covid. The only pressure obstructing this is the performance focus that underlies the perceived pressure to score more goals than a rival school in the weekend fixture.
Pandemic pressures have required schools to think more creatively, and experiment with new approaches. Seasonal flexibility has been one of those variables. The evidence from this enforced enquiry has been illuminating, and positive. The opportunity to emerge from this period with an improvement in school sport, less constrained by the calendar, and with plural priorities, will exist for the school year 2021-22. It is a unique opportunity to re-define both purpose and programme. The only reason not to do so would be the stultifying pressure of conservatism – the heavy historical burden of how it has always been done.