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Are you trying to do too much in the Summer Term?

by Neil Rollings

The Spring Term has always been an uninspiring time for school sport. Dark nights, cold and wet weather, frosty mornings and mock exams. It has always been a season demanding dogged persistence from teachers and coaches and anticipating better times ahead. Those better times used to be the Summer Term – long, sunny days accompanied by the more relaxed pace of Cricket, Athletics and Tennis. After a miserable British winter, this can finally provide a climate conducive to sport for an energised population of staff and pupils. It reinforces the conviction that school sport really is solar-powered.

However, the reality can be less positive than the mirage. Returning to school after the Easter break now presents school sport with a different set of difficulties. These have been growing, incrementally, every year. Maybe it was the interruption of normal service during the pandemic, but this year the disruption to established operating procedures has appeared greater than ever. The long-anticipated, halcyon days of the summer have become a hamster wheel of activity, struggling to deliver a programme that no longer fits the capacity and culture of the principal exam term.

A perfect storm has emerged. The term has become shorter than ever. Many independent schools finish at the end of June, which means that most competitions have to be concluded by then – often to the frustration of those participants who have another three weeks remaining to accommodate these matches. This year, for some schools, the second half of term is a bare four weeks.

The cruel irony is that improvement in the weather coincides with the start of the exam season. This has always been the case. However, two years of pandemic-inspired suspension appears to have heightened examination sensitivity and the anxiety levels of both teachers and pupils. Even internal school exams can discourage sports participation for some pupils and their nervous parents. Sport has always clashed with these attitudes, with many feeling that the demands of games and exams are mutually exclusive: increasingly, the battle for pupil time and commitment is being lost. Many schools conduct their games in denial of exam demands, and then get frustrated when the inevitable clashes lead to the collapse of senior teams. There is less Sixth Form sport in the summer (or any other) term than ever before. This is a reality that needs to be accommodated, rather than ignored.

Inter-school competition is particularly vulnerable to these pressures. Maintaining an historic programme of regular fixtures is more difficult than ever, not least because summer sports are more time consuming than their winter counterparts. There are more activities running simultaneously, and many occupy only small numbers. Schools can find themselves stretched to the point of being over-committed, meaning that any unanticipated pressures cause programme collapse and the inevitable late withdrawal from matches and other commitments.

Alongside the regular fixtures, cups and trophies present their own, additional challenges. There are more of these than in any previous era. Most of these matches and events take place outside the regular competition programme and involve midweek matches against unpredictable opponents, often at short notice. Frequently they require that most incendiary of demands – missing lessons to play. As knockouts get into the later rounds, with inevitable delays pushing them into the exam season, greater travel is also required. The wisdom of a two hour journey to play a 20 over senior Cricket match midweek during the peak exam week seems questionable to even the most dedicated advocates of the benefits of sport. Finding mutually agreeable dates becomes impossible.

Cricket isn’t the only game under pressure: alongside it are athletics championships which often require a full day out of school, stretching pupil commitment, staff capacity and school goodwill even further. Add midweek tennis leagues which intrude into evenings every week, and the total burden soon becomes unsustainable. The inability to honour commitments leads to inevitable withdrawals which erode the integrity of competitions, and make those schools who have battled against the odds to fulfil games wonder why they did so.

What is the solution? Certainly, there is unlikely to be any reduction of exam pressure in the near future, nor any significant lengthening of the term. School sport has got to find a way of co-existing with these pressures in a way which is both comfortable and sustainable. This will involve reviewing the entire programme of commitments, and working out what is realistic and beneficial. Inevitably, there will be some contraction. The total volume of regular fixtures, plus participation in summer sport cups and championships needs consideration as a whole – and bringing back under control. The implications of entering competitions needs to be carefully audited before the entry is carelessly submitted in the winter, without consideration of the wider implications. The need to avoid being over-committed, especially in the exam year groups, is vital. The extent to which senior Saturday sport is sustainable during the peak exam weeks demands realistic review. Competition entry needs to be focused on the year groups that don’t have public exams, and organisers will need to recognise this and make adjustments.

Summer term sport is at a cross roads. It has succumbed to a culture of adding, whilst trying to maintain levels of commitment from a previous era. The stressful battle to achieve the impossible must be abandoned. A process of rationalisation will be necessary to ensure that programmes are manageable, sustainable and interface comfortably with pupils’ other commitments and the wider purpose of schools. Sport has a future in the summer term if it can re-calibrate its purpose and ambition and fit more comfortably into the modern world. There is no good alternative.