All schools have kids who love games. The size of the group may vary, to reflect the culture of the environment. It may also be subject to attrition at different rates as pupils get older. But there will always be a sizeable group of boys and girls who love being active and eagerly exploit all the opportunities that are put in front of them. Schools have more than 100 years experience of providing for the able enthusiasts, and are comfortable that they know how to do this well. Most schools reserve the best of their provision for this population.
Equally, all schools have pupils who have no interest whatever in outdoor games, and find the pursuit of balls of all sizes to be pointless. The combination of disinterest and lack of effort ensures that progress is minimal. This constituency is often allowed to detach from team games at an early stage of their school career - soon after they have proven, beyond reasonable doubt, that they can’t enhance the school’s reputation on the games field. Provision for these pupils has improved radically, benefiting from the arms race which has developed attractive new indoor facilities, making a range of less intimidating activities available. There is rarely any controversy surrounding permitting these pupils to exercise a choice to slide quietly away from outdoor sport, to discharge the minimum requirements for attendance in a gentle backwater away from the furnaces of competition. A comfortable accommodation is usually made with these pupils. Most progress slowly along the line of least resistance towards a sedentary adulthood in which they become complicit with their own children in perpetuating the norm.
The statistically “normal” children sit between the extremes. The average pupils. Their ability and enthusiasm vary within a narrow band, and they sit at the delicate interface between competitive team sports and other alternatives. Many welcome the opportunities to play with friends in school B teams at an appropriate level of seriousness. The alphabet game, at its best, is a strength of the system. It does, however, depend upon a critical mass of pupils to make it work. It is at the fringes of this group that provision is often at its weakest, and where school practices can be most questionable. These are the pupils for whom choice is least available, and conscription is not dead.
The choice which is available to the less able is illusory for the boys and girls who have some ability in games, but moderate interest, and a history of being on the fringes of teams. Their motivation has been sapped by long spells on the touchlines in earlier years, and little encouragement along the way. This constituency often experiences the worst of what school games programmes have to offer. Trapped by the school’s need to find the critical mass of games players to fulfil the unforgiving demands of the fixture list, but without the benefits and recognition that accompany the marquee athletes. Schools are reluctant to offer more attractive choices to this population, lest they be tempted to defect towards them. The interface between the traditional games and variety can be an uncomfortable place to be.
Is there an answer? Retaining the enthusiasm which the majority of young children show for games is a challenge for all schools. Many are, however, cavalier about it. They are slow to see the association between the quality of the programme from day one, and the level of attrition. The problem may manifest itself in teenage years, but has been caused considerably earlier. Making the experience as attractive as possible from the outset maximises the number of pupils who will remain engaged. This is far more effective than making the alternatives unattractive. Or unavailable. But the retention level will never be 100%. Variety will always erode involvement in team games, amongst children and adults. The team games experience must be as good, and inclusive, as possible. And the alternatives must be equally robust and demanding, ensuring that there is no route of least resistance available. But then market forces must apply during the teenage years.
The picture is bigger than having enough players to fulfil a C team game on a cold Saturday morning. The central purpose of school sport is to generate a positive, lifelong relationship with exercise. A poor experience of badly run team games is very unlikely to achieve that.
Neil Rollings, February 2019