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Where pupils must have prizes

Sports days may be losing their competitive edge. Biddy Passmore and Adrian Mourby report.

Does the traditional sports day still exist? Do young men in white shorts still breast the tape, like Ian Charleson in Chariots of Fire, while the duffers and also-rans cheer wanly from the pavilion? Do fathers still risk heart attacks and mothers garner blisters in their designer trainers to come first in their races? Or has the whole thing fallen prey to politically correct notions of unhelpful competition or, worse, apathy?

Sports days still seem to flourish. But, these days, they are as likely to be sports afternoons or, increasingly, evenings as an all-day event and to cater for year-groups rather than whole schools. And they are as likely to take place in playgrounds, stadiums and parks as on those rare playing fields.

Above all, they no longer provide just an opportunity for a few stars to shine while the rest sit, bored and mutinous, on the sidelines. Inspired as much by the need to keep discipline as by an "all must have prizes" mentality, schools now tend to involve as many pupils as possible.

As Dennis Richards, head of St Aidan's, a 1600-pupil C of E mixed comprehensive in Harrogate, explains: "We lost heart in the old sports day because it didn't involve enough children. It involved the stars and crowds of children who were mildly interested for three and a half minutes and then spent the rest of the afternoon driving the staff mad making visits to the toilet and the ice cream van."

Now, St Aidan's organises sports afternoons on a year-by-year basis (still 240 pupils a time) and participation is enthusiastic. Forms compete against each other. "They're all mixed ability, so the competition is relatively equal," says Mr Richards.

But Mr Richards, a traditionalist at heart, maintains it is a meaningful activity - real competition. Parents are not invited to take part but are warmly invited to attend. This being Harrogate, they do.

In common with most secondary schools, St Aidan's finds the oldest pupils, who have finished their exams, do not want to return for a sports day. Sports days have become the province of younger pupils.

Andrew McCarhy, PE adviser for North Yorkshire , says athletics-based sports days still predominate in the county's secondaries, which may be held throughout the year. Fewer primaries are doing the old "running and bean bags" sports days.

Far from the North Yorkshire moors and dales, the London borough of Newham has different challenges to face - less space, more deprived and disruptive pupils, varying levels of parental support. But the approach is surprisingly similar. Lucia Devine, Newham's PE curriculum adviser, says less than half of the borough's primaries now opt for the "egg-and-spoon, running, jumping and parents' race formula". The majority go for pupils moving from event to event, known as the carousel model, where the maximum number of pupils is kept busy for the maximum amount of time ("fewer behaviour problems," she notes) although some schools have to add on conventional races, to please parents.

Angus Dunphy, head of Fitzalan school, an inner-city comprehensive in Cardiff, says: "It's still regarded as an important event in the school calendar but competition is more at a personal level now, improving on your personal best, rather than the old house system."

He laments the loss of senior pupils to summer sports because of exams - and the lack of support from parents. "Most of them work round here so we probably get no more than 20 parents turning up out of a school of 1,500."

At fee-charging Monmouth school for boys, headteacher Tim Haynes still gets plenty of parents on the day itself but he too has noticed a change.

"It's much more of a last day of term party now. Competition between the houses, between the day boys and boarders, is much less intense and for some years now we've only involved the younger members of the school because the older boys are out on exam leave," he says.

Perhaps the last bastion of the classic sports day is the independent prep school. "They do tend to be the sort of things that end the school year," says Trevor Mulryne, head of St Olave's School in York and chairman of the prep schools association's sport and recreation committee. "Schools combine speech day and sports day and tea and sticky buns for parents."

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