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The post-Olympic campaign for daily sport in state schools could lead to the cult of sporting excellence that makes private schools a hell for the unathletic

Two hours of sport a day is probably more than the state can afford: thank heaven for that, I say

By on Friday, 17 August 2012

School rugby can be a horrible prospect for the non-sporty (Photo: PA)

School rugby can be a horrible prospect for the non-sporty (Photo: PA)

According to the Guardian newspaper (a lot of other people are going on about it, too), more than a third of British medal winners in the 2012 London Olympics (“Team GB”, as we can all of us hardly avoid knowing, won 65 medals, 29 of them gold) are from private schools, which educate only seven per cent of the school population.

The dominance of private schools is particularly evident in sports such as rowing where more than half of gold medallists were privately educated, with fewer than a third coming from state comprehensives and the rest from grammar schools.

The Guardian goes on to say that the focus on the school backgrounds of Britain’s successful Olympians has prompted an inquest into the state of school sport in comprehensives. The suggestion is now being made by the government that children at comprehensives ought to have at least two hours of sport a week. Well, that wouldn’t be too awful, though I don’t suppose it’s going to turn anyone into an Olympic medallist.

The Old Etonian Boris Johnson, however, is not alone in thinking that it ought to be two hours a day, the usual practice at public schools. This is a way of exhausting boys at boarding schools and making them easier to control. It is also part of what often and probably usually emerges in such institutions: a cult of sporting excellence which leads to the hero-worship of those who do well at games, with an accompanying contempt for those who have no interest or ability in sport — these often become a target for the Flashmans who flourish in these hellish places.

I know, because I attended one of them. There was rugby twice a week, a cross-country run at least once a week, compulsorily spectating one of the school teams play some other sporting hell-hole on Wednesdays and Saturdays if you weren’t actually playing yourself (which towards the end of my school career I often was, having been forced into the second team — not because I was any good but because there was nobody else big enough to be a prop forward except for the other prop forward I was there to balance in the scrum). I do not name this ghastly school (if you really want to know, you will have to look me up in Who’s Who) because I have been told that it has improved since I was there. But I know whereof I speak.

An idea seems to be growing that this cult of sporting excellence is something we should encourage in all our schools so as to get even more medals at future Olympics. Fortunately, it would cost a lot of taxpayers’ money so it won’t happen. The results if it did, however, would be disastrous. It would, for a start, be a great depressant of individuality. G K Chesterton, for instance, was lucky enough to be sent to St Paul’s school, one of the few public schools of his day where the inspired High Master, the great F W Walker, deliberately made the place very unlike the other great public schools of the day. He saw it as no part of his purpose to train the prosperous middle class in the manners and deportment of the gentry. When one prospective parent wrote to inquire as to the social standing of the boys at St Paul’s, he famously replied “Madam, so long as your son behaves himself and his fees are paid, no questions will be asked about his social standing”. Corporal punishment in his time (in sharp contrast with the regime of his predecessors and with public school practice elsewhere) was rare. And the school in Walker’s time was entirely free of the public school cult of sporting prowess, so humiliating to the unathletic, and with such possibilities for the regimentation of the boys’ free time.

This comparatively relaxed regime was precisely what the young Gilbert Chesterton needed; here, he could develop in his own way, uncrushed by a public school system designed to produce rulers for the Empire. The school under Walker established a tradition, which continued well into the 20th century, of nurturing creative and original minds. Its list of famous old boys is unusually rich in literary and artistic talent: Chesterton and Bentley, naturally; the poets Laurence Binyon and Edward Thomas; the novelist Compton Mackenzie; the artist, Paul Nash; the philosopher, Isaiah Berlin; the great horn player, Denis Brain. This unique Pauline ethos was the product of two main factors. The first was the genius of Walker himself, who created a school in his own image, one in which unconventional personalities could flourish. “Mr Walker,” remembered Chesterton’s brother, Cecil, “could be a sufficiently stern and even terrible disciplinarian when he liked, but he had in his nature vast reserves of good humour and tolerance. Also there was in him a touch of unconventionality; he lived the kind of life he liked, and not the kind of life a schoolmaster was expected to live. With a little change in his circumstances he might almost have been a Bohemian. He had a shrewd sense of human character and a keen eye to types of talent alien from his own. He always liked GKC and prophesied great things of him…”

Chesterton himself had no doubts about the absurdity of the cult of sporting excellence, and the way it led to the growth of an overarching domination, leading to a deadening conformity, of the boys who grew up under its shadow. After he had left the school, which then had no boarders, he paid tribute to it, in an unpublished autobiographical fragment:

In the atmosphere of St Paul’s is found little echo of the dogma of the High Master of Christ’s Hospital. “Boy! The school is your father! Boy! The school is your mother! … Friendships formed in this school have a continual reference to home life, nor can a boy possibly have a friend long without making the acquaintance and feeling the influence of his parents and his surroundings…. The boys’ own amusements and institutions, the school sports, the school clubs, the school magazine, are patronised by the masters, but they are originated and managed by the boys. The play-hours of the boys are left to their several pleasures, whether physical or intellectual, nor have any foolish observations about the battle of Waterloo being won on the cricket-field, or other such rather unmeaning oracles, yet succeeded in converting the boys’ amusements into a compulsory gymnastic lesson. The boys are, within reasonable limits, free.

That’s my idea of a decent school: not one with two hours of compulsory sport every day. Look, I’m pleased the Olympics were (despite my own grouchiness about them before the event) a success, and that we won so many medals. But let’s not get carried away. And above all else, let’s not turn sporting success into a national cult, one which would pervade and distort our educational system and our national life. The main priority for our schools should still be to raise academic standards. Then, for those who are drawn that way, the provision of sporting facilities and guidance, if we can afford it. No more selling off of playing fields: but please — no more Tom Brown’s schooldays, not now: all that is mercifully in the past; let’s keep it there.

  • Nat_ons

    Outside the spirit of independent schooling one would be hard pressed to see any games, sport, even discipline (so necessary a virtue to any success). Regimented learning of drill, like any mind-numbing learning by rote, has no more than a tiny part in every coordinated venture, I suspect (not least at school). But, like the learning of Latin (possibly Greek and even Hebrew), its ‘necessity’ is no longer perceived – let alone appreciated .. chiefly in reaction to some overweening brutality of imposition (and lack of gainful use).

    Exercise, now that is a different kettle of fish! But even that grudged gradgrindery lurking in the utilitarian spirit is all too often more like the mish-mash meaninglessness of today’s professional teaching of ‘religion’. All it offers, for the most part, is a Me-ism spirituality – writ large.

    I go back to my odd example of the ‘how and why’ of learning Latin (if only a little, for some important local use, and with very limited outside application); the ‘why’ can seem most difficult to explain (to ultilitarians) yet is the most easy to understand: it forms a common disciplined basis for all kinds of other ‘learning’, not only other languages, still it does include opening up to far greater breadth of English use (outside txt wth ansr lol or ‘This is Jack’ – ‘Jack is a d-o-g’). The ‘how’ is also simplicity itself, if teachers, parents and schools are willing to ditch their self-imposed difficulties, for by introducing Latin (or sports etc) as a taken-for-granted discipline right from the first days of education (and giving it a daily application) it no longer need seem alien or unnecessary. And the means of delivering this end is equally simple to implement = just do it (no fuss, no regimentation, no having to ‘understand’ a vast amount of rules – first; then and encourage the child join in (at its own level of ability/ desire); this is how some wonderfully kind and gently committed Irish and English missionaries taught Latin (and sums and sports) in far flung places in my own lifetime .. to the children and to their parents and better still even to many teachers (making it fun without seeming to make it look like ‘fun’; as with mother’s milk, it took some effort no doubt – but the effort nourished beyond the wildest dreams of utility) – long, long gone days those I admit.

    Childlike mimicry, imitation and adaptability are not only phenomenal powers in human learning, as with most animals, it is severely repressed in much of the prevailing Gradgrind philosophy of ‘spiritually liberating’ education. 

  • Lewispbuckingham

    Sport is a bit downgraded in State schools in OZ. While one of my children was at such a high school the annual swimming carnival was often cancelled.One year it was cancelled because of rain.
     My own school emphasized music and science as well as english and languages.We always failed at sport.It was said that this was good because it allowed us to get used to defeat and so fitted us for the real world.

  • Parasum

    “The Old Etonian Boris Johnson, however, is not alone in thinking that it ought to be two hours a day, the usual practice at public schools. This is a way of exhausting boys at boarding schools and making them easier to control….
    ….I do not name this ghastly school (if you really want to know, you will have to look me up in Who’s Who) because I have been told that it has improved since I was there. But I know whereof I speak.”

    ## What can one say ? On the whole, agreed. And those are not the only objections to this absurd cult of sporting prowess. By all means let there be *victores ludorum* though, for those who are talented at sport should not be deprived of opportunities to do well.

    A difficulty is that school, despite the meaning of its name (= leisure) is – or it was – not for leisure, but involved getting a lot of them to do what many of them might have no talent for, in sport or in any other way. And there is definitely great value in the discipline of having to participate in activities for which one may have no inclination. It is not good for their character & their future to allow the young their own way all the time – sometimes, we have to do what we would rather not. But this does or – or can, or did – often brimng a great deal of hardship on the untalented. ISTM that this difficulty is inseparable from the life of a school, if one is to have them at all.

    What is monstrous though is to punish the untalented for their failure to do well what they have no talent for doing well. Surely that is wicked. Apart from anything else, it devalues the currrency.

  • Mark

    I went to Catholic Opus Dei school in the US which was hell for me as I was flat footed and not very athletic. Their high emphasis on sports resulted in me being constantly made fun of and feeling absolutely worthless for 8 years; this despite the fact that I was in the top 2% of my country’s academic exams (SATs) and was in good physical shape overall. I appreciate this article as I’m still recovering from my private school experience.

  • Gabriel austin

    Several decades I attended the Salesian high school in New Rochelle. Besides having a highly Catholic atmosphere, it had a highly Italian atmosphere. Which is to say in matters of sport, the attitude was mene frego. We did not play to lose but were not upset if we did. We were popular among other schools, who would count us as a certain win. The spirit of Don Bosco reigned.
    I should not also that there was no bullying. The bigger boys would not put up with it.