Gus Lock, Headmaster of Habs Boys, asks if school sport is delivering all it should and considers how we make it truly inclusive – and for life

School sport is a wonderful thing. Its benefits to students are obvious and vast, and it has rightly always been a central tenet of a liberal education, from the Greeks to the Victorians. Sport builds physical and emotional resilience, leadership and teamwork. For students, it also embeds invaluable qualities such as competitiveness and sportsmanship, respect for oneself and for others, courage, risk-taking, discipline, humility in victory, and grace in defeat.

Sport can be a brilliant vehicle for supporting and championing powerful messages about society too, such as taking the knee or gender equality. This provides a very necessary balance to academic pressures and screen time. But perhaps above all, sport is an incredible source of inspiration for fun and friendship, a space where lifelong memories are made.

And yet, for all of the benefits it brings, is school sport actually delivering all that it should? The health and fitness of our adult population has never been worse, with something close to an 800% rise in obesity-related hospital admissions in the last decade alone. The number of adults actively participating in football, hockey, rugby and cricket in the UK is in steady decline. The more sports have professionalised, the more exclusive and elitist they have become at all levels and, for all our commitment to breadth and inclusion, all too often school sport remains the preserve of an athletic elite.

It is imperative that schools understand and define what success looks like in this context. Surely success must be a physically literate and engaged adult population, with high numbers having the desire and self-confidence to continue being physically active and enjoying it? A change has long been promised, but there is still much that remains to be done. We need a more inclusive model.

Habs Boys on ensuring inclusive sports
Gus Lock, Head of Habs Boys, says we need to move sport beyond elite territory and engage all young people, whatever their ability, focusing on engagement and retention

Our schools need to invest in and celebrate all teams, devoting more time and attention to every child. We need to find ways to listen to all pupils (not merely the sporting elite): what is it that they have they enjoyed about our sports provision and what has put them off? We must avoid early specialisation and prefigured pathways that seek to impose specific destinations on children – destinations that occasionally suit the school, coaches or parents more than they suit the child’s preferences.

We need to provide choice and breadth, also remembering that none (or very few) will be playing rugby aged 40. Instead, we can do more to support and promote so-called minority sports – often the things more likely to be played in later life. Hard though it is, we need to get past our obsession with filling our trophy cabinets. Being fiercely competitive matters, but victory and success are not necessarily the same thing and too many schools and parents still miss the point that it is the process that matters most, not the outcome.

We need to start judging ourselves on very clear metrics of participation and retention. Our goal as schools is always to educate and prepare our students for life, not simply for exams. Judging success is therefore exceedingly challenging and far more complex than any league table would suggest. In this quest, the imperative to embed an inclusive approach to sports provision – seeking to ensure young people remain active, healthy and engaged with sport in later life – is perhaps as important as anything else schools do.

Habs Boys

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