In Julian Barnes’ brilliant new novel The Only Story, the narrator, Paul, is a reasonable tennis player who knows how to make himself appear better than he actually is:
“I was modest after a good shot, quietly pleased at the winning of the game, head-shakingly rueful at the ultimate loss of the set. I could feign all that stuff, and so was welcomed as a summer member, joining the year-round Hugos and Carolines.”
Paul knows that it’s not just playing the game that matters but being able to talk about playing the game.
I’m someone who has never quite "got" sport, either to play or talk about it well. Occasionally, in my less secure years, when friends were banging on about a football match and asked my opinion, I’d feel I ought to bluff a comment. I’d say something like, “Ah, yes, the midfielder looked like a terrier on the wing." I convinced no one, obviously.
And at school I simply loathed sport. In sixth-form PE lessons, my friend Nigel and I tried to subvert the muddy tedium of compulsory cross-country by devising a short-cut across a housing estate. We were spotted by the head of PE, there reading the newspaper in his car, and got sentenced to run very public laps of the field as an act of penitence. First-year pupils watched and laughed.
Years before that, someone thought I might be a good swimmer. I probably was, but I hated the thought of swimming competitively, of standing shivering with reddening eyes on the side of a pool, a backdrop of bleak showers and verruca footbaths, gripped by swirling adolescent self-consciousness.
So when I announced that I didn’t want to swim in galas for the school, I was summoned from the after-school drama club I did want to attend and hauled into the school’s newly built swimming pool. Amid the chlorinated fug, in front of smirking peers and a bemused visiting team, I was given a vociferous lecture about letting the school and, obviously, myself down.
For me, sport at school was therefore aligned with low-level humiliation. In fact, it’s often felt like that beyond school. For example, I came to skiing far too late; my knees and nerves not ready for the physical or psychological demands. I, therefore, never managed to ski confidently because I could never quite overcome the fear of, well, dying.
Given my undistinguished personal sporting record, no one was more surprised than me when, back in 2003, the school where I was headteacher became a sports college. It was part of an era that deemed specialisation a way of rejuvenating schools, injecting a distinctively renewed culture, thereby driving higher standards.
'The liberating power of sport'
School specialism was one of the early victims of the educational cull of 2010 when Michael Gove and his team moved into the Department for Education. It was perceived as a fad that diluted standards.
But not by me.
Now, reflecting on 15 years of headship, I think becoming a sports college was the best decision the governors, staff and I ever made. Of course, there were initial naysayers. I remember someone at a staff meeting saying: “But won’t this emphasis on sport make us a less academic school?”
The answer, of course, was a simple "no". Look at Britain’s finest, proudest independent schools. They recognise that success in the examination hall goes hand-in-hand with success on the rugby pitch; that resilience in maths is strengthened by resilience in the gymnasium; that playing characters in drama is enhanced by building character through the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. This isn’t either/or.
And what I saw at the school I was privileged to lead is what I never saw in my own school days – the liberating power of sport. I saw young people learning new skills, gaining new discipline and self-assurance. Students I had written off as sullenly disaffected demonstrated extraordinary concentration through dance, badminton or martial arts. Young people who had feared competition became confident teachers of younger children in neighbouring primary schools. They, in turn, gained new role models.
Most of all, I saw how sport and PE unlocked leadership skills in young people, building in them the confidence to speak with pride, to welcome guests, to venture overseas, and to become extraordinary ambassadors for our school.
I saw that physical activity is essential not just to our physical health, but to who we are as human beings – to our sense of self, our self-control, our social interactions, our mental wellbeing.
That’s why I welcome this week’s Impact Report by the Youth Sport Trust, an organisation I have been proud to work with for almost 20 years. And it shows how much we have to do.
For example: “Only 22 per cent of children aged 5 to 15 in England meet the chief medical officer’s recommended 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity.”
There’s also a finding that must be a key social mobility issue for a government that says it is committed to improving social mobility:
“Almost half of young people (47 per cent) from the lowest-income households fell into the Health Survey for England’s ‘low activity’ category. Only 35 per cent of those from the highest income households were classed as ‘low activity’.”
That’s why – as the least sporty speaker at any conference, the least informed contributor to a post-match conversation, and the worst cross-country runner in Staffordshire in 1979 – I’ll strain every sinew to argue that high-quality PE and sport isn’t just a good thing in our schools.
No. It’s far more than that. It’s a necessity and an entitlement.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton