There never was an equivalent of Cricket for girls. A game that occupied almost everyone at different levels of ability and formed the bulk of the competitive programme. Cricket occupied that role for over a hundred years in boys’ schools, and part of the legacy of its current declining popularity is the question of what replaces it.
For girls, the summer term offers an often inadequate combination of Tennis, Athletics and Rounders. None is entirely satisfactory. Tennis has a high entry level of skill requirement, and uses facilities inefficiently: Athletics captures the imagination of few teenage girls, and the significant number of girls who love Rounders often do so for the wrong reasons. A small number of girls is in high demand for matches and competitions in all activities. If the first tennis pair is also the backbone of the Athletics squad and the Rounders team, opportunities can be in short supply for other girls who are below the relatively high entry level of skill that these activities demand.
The industry of schools gets confused about the summer. Because the third term bears the name of the warmest season, it is easy to conclude that it features endless balmy days, in which lower intensity of physical activity is appropriate. In late April and early May, with dew on the ground, this assumption can be unfounded. Shivering groups standing in rows in the annual javelin lesson, or waiting to bat in the class Rounders match are testimony to the vagaries of the English summer.
Of course, these activities could be better taught to make them more relevant, active and accessible. But they rarely are. The creativity and inventiveness with which winter games are taught is often replaced by dull, slow moving lessons featuring high levels of inactivity and standing around. Summer term activities can bring out the worst in teachers - and Athletics often leads the way.
The industry of education has been modelled on some faulty assumptions. The first is that the summer term can only promote competition in seasonal activity, the second is the overestimation of the climate and the third is a mistaken assessment of the width of appeal of staple activities in the typical programme.
What is the alternative? How about some activities that can’t be accommodated in the winter programme, but which might offer appeal, higher levels of physical activity and lower thresholds of skill? Girls’ Football, forms of Lacrosse, outdoor Basketball. History is the only reason why Netball is regarded as a more suitable game for January and February, than May and June. Certainly, the design of Netball outfits would appear to assume that the game is played in a warm climate.
Science is clear that physical activity improves memory, concentration and learning. The exam season is a time when these qualities are most in demand. Yet, curiously, it is the time when physical demands of school games can be at the lowest for many pupils. There is little exercise in Tennis for girls who cannot maintain a rally, for deep fielders or in the shot putt lesson.
Perhaps the time has come, not to reform the programme, but to transform it. To suspend tradition, question assumptions and start with the end in mind. If the aim is to encourage activity and to win engagement, then maybe some radical new tools are required.