The unanswerable question that is haunting planners of school sport for the autumn, is: what activities will be permissible, and which restrictions will apply? This is closely followed by the elephant in the room: when will inter-school sport return?
September is three months away. That is a long time in the history of a disease that was practically unknown three months ago. The resources of the world are being dedicated to finding medical treatments, and there are signs of progress. A vaccine would change everything, and is the only condition in which school sport in anything like its previous form might be restored.
Schools have been deprived of the status quo in PE and Sport. Doing what has always been done does not appear to be an option, until there is a medical breakthrough. This means they are thrust into the unusual situation of evaluating what they seek to achieve, what is possible and identifying the best approach.
Even the most optimistic observers struggle to anticipate recognisable school sport in early September. Even the countries ahead of England, such as Ireland, see a longer timescale. There will certainly, therefore, be an opportunity to devote the time, energy and resource previously demanded by preparing for a competitive season to new initiatives. Principal amongst these are the chance to improve programmes of physical activity to give them a much more robust wellbeing focus. The value of education in health, fitness and movement vocabulary has never been controversial. It has been restricted by the intrusive demands of the competition programme. Freed from this tyranny, schools have a genuine opportunity to devote energy to reviewing the approaches and content of their programmes. 2020 could be the year when PE modernises itself to address the physical wellbeing demands of twenty first century pupils.
Schools cannot resist the historic lure of competitive sport, and will be anxious to restore this as soon as possible. The sector risks a race to return to recognisable competition, with some schools simply treading water with a programme of active entertainment until it becomes possible. They will be operating the autumn term constantly looking over the shoulder for the arrival of the fixture cavalry to rescue them. Whatever happens should be able to accommodate an unpredictable return to school sport, if and when this becomes achievable. Schools will also be reluctant to have a school year in which some traditional games are entirely absent. Fears that they may then be difficult to restore would seem well founded, and it is already certain that there will be none of the usual summer activities before the end of this term.
Whatever the timescale, some sports will be possible before others. Rugby is likely to be the last restored – and also the one most at risk of missing an entire season. It would seem logical to arrange the sporting calendar in descending order of likely restoration. It might also be possible to experiment with some rising sports which have struggled to penetrate the traditional calendar.
What might this look like?
September could be devoted to summer term sports. The normal spring term sports (often boys’ Hockey and Netball) could occupy the rest of the autumn term, being likely to be achievable, at least in a modified form. Both boys’ and girls’ Association Football could operate alongside these. This would provide a chance to evaluate the value of this game for girls, with a view to a larger role going in the future. The recent growth of the round ball code has demonstrated that independent schools can no longer be in denial of the national game: the UK has been the only country in the world where the principal schools have not played the most culturally significant sport. The growth of the women’s game in both Cricket and Soccer will need to be reflected in schools.
Rugby (and girls’ Hockey, in co-ed schools) could then be switched to the Spring Term, giving these games most chance of happening, and the best prospect of school fixtures. The season would be shorter, but all pupils would be introduced to the games, and the damage for the following year may be reduced. If it was possible, this would also link seamlessly with the Sevens season, or even provide that as an alternative in some schools.
The sector needs school sport to return. It is central to its identity, and its business case. Short of medical miracle, this currently seems unimaginable for at least the first part of the autumn term. Shuffling the cards into a different hand gives the best chance of producing a recognisable programme that could accommodate competition when it becomes possible.
The return to school in September is going to demand creative thinking, imagination and new operating processes in all areas. Sport will certainly be foremost among them.