Dalton's diary

6th September 1996 at 01:00
The latest Department for Education and Employment circular (1196) on school prospectuses and governors' annual reports introduces yet another compulsory element. We must now include information about sport.

Against the background of a disappointing Olympics and Pounds 100 million of lottery money for a programme of sporting excellence, it is obviously up to us all to do our bit. But it concerns me that just as moral and spiritual education has been hijacked by religious education, so the excellent principles of sport for all and improving fitness has become inextricably entangled with the desire to win.

My school's approach to sport is consistent with that of other areas of the curriculum. We provide equality of access without necessarily expecting equality of outcome. We are not terribly keen on competiveness. We do not keep lists on the classroom wall of spelling or tables test scores. We report Standard Assessment Task results discreetly to individual parents. Pupils are encouraged to do their best, learn new skills and work to improve performance.

When watching the Olympics, I much prefer to see the athlete from a little country, grinning with delight at having exceeded his personal best while scraping into a semi-final, than watching some spoilt brat sobbing, having won "only" the silver medal.

Our sports days are as active, enjoyable and non-stressful as we can make them. The children move round in small groups, completing obstacle courses, throwing balls into buckets, carrying cups of water, providing ample photo-opportunities for parents. But, they tell us, the real world isn't like that. It's tough out there, and their children need to learn to compete. A significant minority in our recent survey of parents asked for "proper" sports days with races. I suspect that, like those who demand the return of the grammar school, they are the ones who expect their children to be the winners.

"Winning doesn't matter" says the teacher in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. "So why do you give prizes?" asks Jessie. Good question. When faced with the horrendous task of judging the Pirates' Fancy Dress at the school fair, I was relieved to be told that there were prizes for everyone. All I had to do was improvise as many winning categories as there were pirates. "And now, the prize for the best parrot!" I heard myself squawk.

But the point about "real races" is that there can be only one winner, and although most children can accept this fairly philosophically, parents on the whole cannot. Against our better judgment, we introduced a few experimental races into sports day this year, and the poor ladies charged with holding the tape and adjudicating the result were lucky to get out alive. Irate parents accused them of ineptitude, favouritism and quite possibly corruption.

My daughter, who plays for a women's football team tells me this is commonplace. She has yet to see a player sent off in her minor league, but her male coach has been ordered off the ground by the referee, as have several irate and vociferous parents. It seems that competitiveness manifests itself in its most virulent and unattractive form when experienced vicariously through one's children.

At my son's high school, sports days are mercifully free from parents, most of whom work during the week. Classes compete against each other. No individual can compete in more than one event, so the emphasis is on a team effort. So that should make for a really pleasant sporting atmosphere, shouldn't it? Well it should, but apparently the class teachers get terribly agitated.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands

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