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

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.