If we are offering "education for life", then pupils need to experience competition and to be taught sympathetically to deal with all the outcomes. As educators we should be trying to avoid stress for our pupils, but there are children who find the three Rs somewhat stressful and who look forward to sports day when they can show off their talents and regain their self-esteem and the respect of their classmates.
It is the job of the teacher to discover and develop each child's potential. We should be able to celebrate the speed of the fastest sprinters but also share the triumph of achievement that can be gained by everyone when the challenge is appropriate to their ability.
At my children's infants school the "races" were all timed, class versus class obstacle courses, where each child might get two or three turns at completing the course before the time elapsed. Somehow, there were always the same number of events as classes, and each class always won one event. Everyone took part, no one was highlighted, but all had a chance to demonstrate their skills, everyone experienced "winning" and "losing" and great fun was had by all.
At their large junior school, as at the highly competitive pre-prep school where I work, the pupils are very carefully graded and entered against competitors of a similar standard. At my school everyone receives a congratulatory sticker as they finish the race.
We encourage fairness, always try to do our best and try to admire those who can do better than us. We recognise that everyone is good at something and encourage those who aren't good at sports to compete against their own previous best and to remember other activities they are good at. We have recently used cross-curricular whole-school themes to enhance our sports days, and for the slightly older pupils a team competition has provided an extra motivating force. All pupils know that everyone who finishes gets a point, and this can provide greater purpose to those who don't think they'll win.
At senior school, sports day is usually much more akin to a proper athletics meet with selection for the team ensuring that those that can, do, and those that can't, cheer. In my son's class, only four out of 15 boys took part, although at least twice that number could have competed if they'd wanted to.
At the senior independent school where I work, we reduce the number of events to those that are easiest to perform and ask each house for only a small number of representatives for each event.
My biggest challenge, however, has been at the special school where I am PE co-ordinator. The pupils (aged three to 16) have thoroughly enjoyed their first proper PE lessons and it seemed only natural to end the year with some kind of sports day. With everything from able-bodied to electric wheelchairs, we certainly couldn't have races. In the end, virtually the whole of the last day of term was given over to sports.
The senior pupils (Years 9 to 11) staffed the 20-or-so events. The remaining pupils were put into small groups, each with an adult guide. Over five half-hour sessions each group visited the four different areas of running, jumping, aiming and throwing, and had a rest period. The emphasis was on maximum participation and enjoyment, with no direct competition and instant sticker rewards. Everything was very relaxed and there was time for even the slowest of competitors to complete their chosen events. Each pupil carried with them a score chart as a record of their own achievement (on the whole it is difficult to make comparisons).
At the end of the sessions the adults and senior helpers were asked for nominations for outstanding achievement and nearly everyone had a nomination for something. Although some were on the basis of physical achievement - we have to be careful to extend those who are physically capable as well as to accommodate those who are not - most pupils were noted for their supreme effort and determination. A few were for "having the biggest smile".
With careful planning and consideration, I believe that sports day can be an enjoyable experience for all; it doesn't have to be traditional or distressing. When I'm teaching my pupils about tactics I always say "if something's not working change it". That's exactly what I'd say to anyone who's had a distressing sports day this year: look at your pupils and their needs and plan something to fulfil everyone. It can be done.
PE co-ordinator, Patcham House (Special) School and Brighton College and Pre-Prep Brighton East Sussex