Play up and play the game?

4th August 2006 at 01:00
In the second of our series, we ask whether school sport produces the best leaders.

YES. says Peter Greaves

Sport was a way of establishing a pecking order within each year group at my school, separating "men" from "boys". The practical reality was that unless you were in the 1st XV by the end of your first autumn term, you would be a second-class citizen for the rest of your school days. More of a pianist than a prop forward, I was doomed to the artistic underclass and sport made little contribution to my leadership skills.

But, mercifully, schools have changed and the contribution sport makes in schools for all pupils has changed as well. No longer does "leader" equal "bully" or "sport" equal "boys".

Sport can provide an environment in which pupils can develop different aspects of their capabilities. Competing alongside others forces young people to compromise their instinctive self-centredness. Sport highlights the weakness of doing what you want at the expense of the skills and goodwill of others. Encouraging others to be at their best and learning to trust and rely on team-mates in good times and bad are skills that, once developed in sporting contexts, can be channelled into leading other collaborative projects.

Additionally, sport is a great leveller of gender, ability and background.

Mixed teams allow for communication across social boundaries built up in other areas of school life, allowing victory and loss to be experienced and dealt with together. Unlikely team members can become heroes in seconds and be remembered for months.

All of these positive experiences, of course, have the potential to be negative but there is no inevitability to this. It is more likely the context in which sport is set rather than the sport itself that can lead to unhelpful outcomes.

Sport should not be defined simply in terms of football, hockey, rounders etc. Of course, "invasion games" of all types help promote an understanding of strategy, but this should be a small part of any successful sporting picture. Large team games work only if they are the culmination of skills practice in smaller groups. In the same way, practising the skills of encouragement, communication and taking the lead in pairs or threes or fours is an essential step to exercising these attributes.

Equally, leaders in school sport must be taught new ways to measure success. If a local football team has 20 children attending training, it is perfectly appropriate that the best get picked to play week in, week out.

But in school, experience and opportunity should be the core values.

Parents may rant when a star striker is substituted, but "win at all costs"

should never be the message pupils pick up from sporting activities, and ways must be found to promote the right message.

If sport is seen in its broadest sense and is placed within a vision of developing potential rather than simply producing trophies, then it provides a wonderful context for learning some fundamental lessons of life and leadership. Problems come when schools forget that they are the grown-ups. Of course, younger pupils are not able to deal with defeat. Some are dismissive of those who are weaker, less experienced or who have less ability. Others are overly aggressive or bring the behaviour of so-called role models into the school's sporting arena.

Leaving pupils to choose their own teams always leads to disaster, but this is true in every area of school life. Just as we would not tolerate this in maths, art or RE, so we should intervene, channel and teach in sport. As we do, those who are able to motivate, lead and communicate with others will emerge, and sport provides a natural context to place these pupils in roles which will further develop their skills.

Sport in school is not simply a case of winning and losing, but an opportunity to teach and learn. How can teachers argue with that?

Peter Greaves is deputy head of Dovelands primary in Leicester

NO. says Kenny Frederick

School sport did nothing to inspire me to become a school leader. I only ever played in the netball team when an outbreak of food poisoning decimated the star players, and even then I was not made welcome.

There was an "us and them" situation in sport, with nothing in between.

Those who excelled were given all the attention from the PE teachers and sporty classmates, while the rest of us were largely ignored. We were excluded rather than included. Subsequently, I learned to hate sport and grew used to entertaining myself while Miss coached her girls.

I was always willing to have a go, however, and believe that with encouragement and good coaching I might have been able to hold my own in most of the sports we played at school. However, I never had that killer instinct, or burning need to be the best. I wanted to play for the sake of playing, for enjoyment and for exercise - I was not bothered about winning.

In any event, my teachers failed to develop any potential for sport that I might have had. This is not an indicator of good leadership.

In my first year of teaching, I had the chance to see if my negative experience was unique. It wasn't. The PE department in that particular school operated its own rules and whole-school policies meant nothing.

Teachers dished out their own style of punishment and paid scant regard for the school leadership. They were certainly not "on message" as far as the rest of the school was concerned. Yet they were allowed to get on with it.

In fact, their department was seen as very successful. I don't think our well tuned self-evaluation processes would lead us to the same conclusion today.

In my view, good leaders need to motivate and include everyone. They need to play to people's strengths and not exclude them because of their weaknesses. They need to distribute that leadership and not pass the baton to just one athlete and subsequently endow one person with all the power.

They need to develop the team as a whole and value people for what they contribute.

Good leaders bring humanity to the job. They have to be emotionally intelligent and assertive. Bullying and mocking pupils (for their lack of sporting ability) will never be acceptable.

Sport in schools does not necessarily foster these qualities unless those in charge make an all-out effort to open up sport to the masses. Sports men and women are programmed to win at all costs - no matter who they have to trample on to get there. Coming second is no good.

In education, good leaders are those who want to succeed but not at the expense of the school down the road. Sharing good practice and collaboration are regarded as essential leadership qualities, and rightly so. "Succeed at any cost" is not an aim I would aspire to and I would certainly not employ anyone with those characteristics. Emotional leadership needs to be developed if we are to get the best out of people.

The focus in football matches is always on the person who scores the goal, not the team-mates who set up the shot. There is no room for mistakes or failure - to lose is unforgivable. Yet good leaders encourage their team to take risks and allow them to make mistakes. Sports people who aim for perfection, however, will quickly become burned out and have a very limited shelf life.

Three of my senior leadership team are former heads of PE. They are excellent leaders but I do not think that has anything to do with their sporting success. It is more to do with their positive attitude, their determination and their resilience. These qualities are just as well developed in the rest of my team. Therefore, my conclusion is that sport does not, necessarily, develop good leaders.

Kenny Frederick is headteacher of George Greene community school in Tower Hamlets, east London.

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