No job for amateurs: how coaching turned professional

18th June 2010 at 01:00
With the World Cup in full swing and national hand-wringing an inevitability, David Rogers reflects on how school sport has come on in leaps and bounds

- Days gone by, children who wanted to get sports coaching, whether in football, cricket or rugby, were usually helped out by the well-meaning amateur.

This invariably meant a teacher who was an enthusiast for the relevant sport. The coaching was of debatable quality, but this sort of sticking-plaster approach was a symptom of a more dilettante time when winning was important - but not to the exclusion of everything else.

All vestiges of amateurism are now gone, with school coaching in both primaries and secondaries transformed beyond recognition. Professional sport is big business rather than an engaging pastime and the days of "teacher helping out" are on the wane.

"Coaching has improved massively in the last 20 years," says Steve Grainger, chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust, which was set up 16 years ago with the aim of bringing school sport up to scratch.

"Looking back, you wonder how much coaching you actually got. When I was at school, it was the maths teacher who did athletics, the French teacher who did cricket. It was more about team management and making sure the transport was there on time.

"Schools have been living with that legacy and we're not going to get that back. It's a lot more professional now."

Back in 1994, Mr Grainger says, sport in school was on its knees. "We went through a real decline in the Nineties, and when we formed it was at an all-time low."

Many of the changes can be dated to reforms of teachers' working regulations and a reduction in their extra-curricular activities over the last two decades.

Mr Grainger says a renewed focus on academic subjects, in addition to social trends such as children living further away from school and jittery parents, fretting about the safety of their offspring walking home at night on their own, also contributed to the slide.

"At that time, 23 per cent of kids were getting two hours of PE a week; now it's 90 per cent," he adds. "We were concerned about was happening and that kids weren't getting the chance to do sport in school."

Since then, Mr Grainger says, the situation has improved enormously. Now there are dozens of firms offering schools and teachers the type of specialist coaching that was unheard of just 20 years ago.

Companies like Premier Sport, which can list former England rugby union captain Lawrence Dallaglio and Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Duncan Goodhew among its ambassadors, run breakfast, lunch and after-school clubs in schools.

Premier Sport's blurb says: "As the UK's largest children's coaching company of our kind, teaching over 100,000 kids every week, we continually develop educational and innovative sports coaching and are rigorous about our safety procedures."

However, Mr Grainger is anxious that companies like his do not end up taking over from specialist PE staff. "We don't want to see these firms to be seen taking the place of teachers," he says. "There's a big difference between teaching and coaching."

The head of coaching at Brazilian Soccer Schools, founded in 1996 by former Leeds primary teacher Simon Clifford, thinks Mr Grainger's worries are misplaced.

The group provides after-school clubs, but head coach Steve Nichol says perceptions of it "muscling in" on the role of the traditional PE teacher have never arisen.

He adds that the school, which adopts Brazilian-style training methods including using a smaller and heavier ball to help children improve their close control, is brought in for its coaching expertise only. "Children enjoy it and it's something both boys and girls can do," Mr Nichol says.

He admits there has been an "explosion" in the number of companies providing coaching expertise and puts it down to the need to move on from well-meaning amateurism. "There was more of a need for an organised structure and money has been made available, which helps to make this sort of thing accessible to schools," he says.

One school using outside coaches is St Joseph's Catholic Primary in Portishead. Its head, Elizabeth Jeffery, says the coaching system is much more structured now than in the past.

"We have much more scope for pulling in people from the outside and designing our own curriculum," she adds.

St Joseph's, which has around 200 pupils, pays for coaches who work during school hours, while parents are asked to fund the coaches' work outside the school day. It has brought in AA Coaching to run its after-school football club, with parents paying #163;15 per child for seven sessions of coaching throughout June and July.

Mrs Jeffery says the school works with its local authority, North Somerset Council, to find the right sort of outside help.

"We do a lot of networking and call in favours," she adds. "It's not about replacing PE; it's very much an add-on. The impact on the children's physical development is fantastic."

And it's not just the traditional sports such as football and cricket that are being taught. The Youth Sport Trust's Steve Grainger says that when his organisation was set up the average number of sports being offered at school was six; now it is 17. Pupils at St Joseph's, for example, can even be coached in cheerleading.

Traditional bodies like the Football Association (FA) have had to keep up with the changes. Its national football development manager for education, Donna McIvor, says: "It's demand-driven and providing a service for children and parents."

The FA provides free coaching through its Tesco schools initiative and has a teacher-training programme to fine-tune the skills of PE staff.

While the days of the teachercoach being a jack of all trades but master of none may be fading, one problem persists: school playing fields continue to disappear, which, as supporters point out, rather undermines the strides being made in coaching.

Helen Griffiths at Fields In Trust, the new name for the National Playing Fields Association, says that grounds are still being ripped up and turned into houses and offices. "The number of playing fields has dropped from 26,000 in 1992 to around 20,000 now," she says. "They're lost to developers in the main."

The majority of playing fields are owned by local authorities, which do not have to let them out for sporting use. But Mrs Griffiths points out: "It's much more difficult to sell a playing field if it's well used."

Happily, for public playing fields the recession is proving to be a good thing. Mrs Griffiths says that during the boom, around six fields a week were disappearing. "But we've noticed in the past 18 months with the downturn that is about four a week. Developers don't have the money they used to." But she warns: "It's merely a stay of execution."

That grim assessment might be worth bearing in mind if England's much-hyped national football team manages to go far in the World Cup.


- There are more than 500 secondary schools with sport as a specialism.

- On average, schools can now offer coachin in 18 sports.

- 98 per cent of schools offer football.

- Minority sports such as mountaineering, sailing and martial arts are also taught.

- On average, schools have links to eight listed sports clubs.

- Football, cricket, dance, rugby union, swimming and athletics are the most widespread school-club links.

Source: School Sport Survey, DCFS 2009.

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