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'By banning rugby in schools, we're raising children to be scaredy cats'

Why do we think that the best way to raise children is to cocoon them in a risk-free bubble, asks the director of the Institute of Ideas

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This year’s Six Nations rugby tournament is about to end, with England triumphant even before the final matches are played – an antidote to the team’s shoddy World Cup performance last year. The tension in my Welsh-Irish family is whether Wales are runners up, and whether Ireland might be humiliated with the wooden spoon. But, regardless, it’s always fun to enjoy such sporting spectacles, right?

Wrong. For any teachers urging pupils to celebrate an inspiring display of physical dexterity and skill on Saturday, perhaps they should think again. Because we’re now being told that rugby is actually far too problematic for recreational enjoyment.

After all, the recent row about school rugby has seen some denounce the sport as brutally dangerous. Last month, 70 doctors, medical officers and children's commissioners used the Six Nations to launch a call for a ban on tackling and scrums in school rugby matches, issuing dire warnings about the perils of this "high-impact collision sport" to under-18 players.

Their open letter to ministers is an exemplar in scaremongering, involving detailed lists of potential gory injuries. Fractures, ligament tears, dislocated shoulders, spinal injuries, concussions and head injuries, which “can have short-term, lifelong and life-ending consequences for children", have been used to paint a picture of rugby as a threat to the young; more like barbaric bare-knuckle boxing than a beautiful game or a sport they might enjoy.

Ironically, this attack on rugby follows a previous allegation that the sport was too elitist. But just when the Rugby Football Union is on target to introduce the game to a million children in state schools across England, the public-health brigade seem determined to curtail this new opportunity for kids through its own version of #ProjectFear. Queen Mary’s Professor Allyson Pollock, long-time campaigner about the dangers of rugby, was quick to ratchet up the miserablist narrative by pointing out: "If you're thinking of a million children playing every year with this risk of injury, you're looking at 300,000 extra injuries a year, including up to 100,000 concussions."

“Why, why, why, Professor?” (to borrow Tom Jones’ Delilah, the Welsh rugby fans’ anthem, which inevitably one MP has called upon to be banned because it “celebrates domestic violence”. Sigh). Why does every safeguarding story these days insist on emphasising worst-case scenarios and always end up restricting young people’s options and opportunities in the name of child protection? 

The proposal to move to non-contact or tag rugby (in which “tackles are replaced by touching a player or removing a tag from their clothing”), with scrums and rucks prescribed, not only effectively neuters the game, it yet once more proposes that the best way to rear children is to cocoon them in a risk-free bubble. I rarely agree with education secretary Nicky Morgan, but she is right to note that “if schools wrap children up in cotton wool, they risk the next generation entering adult life wholly unprepared for the challenges it can bring”.

And, of course, injury is part of sport and every sport carries an element of risk, from badminton to boxing, from horse-riding to hockey; even break-time kickabouts and games. So no surprise that, in this safety-first climate, informal playing is also subject to panicky bans.

Earlier this month, Christ the King School in Leeds banned the playground game of tig (or "tag" or "you're it") after the headteacher Neil Ryan said: “We've had a few instances recently of children being upset and having clothes torn." The school has introduced a "Five Rules" policy, which includes "keep hands to self". I have sympathy with dad Billy Salkeld, who has a child at the school. He told The Telegraph: "The world's gone crazy, kids can't do 'owt these days."

'Over-protection of children in sport'

And this over-protection of children in relation to sport and play is not a one-off. In November 2014, Noblehill Primary School in Dumfries launched war on the use of skipping ropes or balls at playtimes because “they can cause upset regarding space to play/someone being hurt by an item”.

Dean Horridge, the chief executive of Fit for Sport, which provides advice on sports and games for 3,000 schools across the UK, railed against such over-cautious playground rules at an anti-obesity conference: "They go out to playgrounds and are told they can’t run. They can’t use a ball because it is dangerous… Don’t use that skipping rope because somebody may get strangled…”

Elsewhere, pupils have been stopped from playing leapfrog, marbles and conkers. And three in 10 schools have banned British bulldogs. While schools enthusiastically sign up for the DfE’s latest obesity-busting wheeze, the Daily Mile (itself not risk-free: think of the possible groin strains and torn ligaments), the lived reality for energetic young pupils is that just running about is being reined in by over-cautious educators. If we just left kids alone, they would happily run miles at playtime without formalised mass jogging.

I don’t want to over-claim for sport as a tool for character-building. But socialising children with a risk-aversion focus will inevitably stunt children’s positive development, setting up the model personality-type they should emulate as timid scaredy-cats. Nicky Morgan is far too instrumental when she claims sport helps youngsters develop resilience and grit by teaching values such as “integrity in victory and defeat”, “respect for others” and how to "bounce back from setbacks".

Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, has a point when he says: "I don't see any reason why rugby would be a better way of teaching character than mathematics” (as TES reported last week).

But constantly emphasising risks and dangers can only undermine the virtues of courage, experimentation and pushing yourself, and incite the young to be timorous, fearful and cowardly in the face of any physical challenge – a recipe for socialising a nation of wimps.

So for young rugby fans or players, or even for sportsphobic maths geeks or artsy types like me, admiring the prowess of players from all six nations might be educationally beneficial and even quite inspiring.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a former FE teacher. She tweets as @Fox_Claire

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