08 Mar 2020
By Alan Peters
It is inevitable, really, isn’t it? Something totally predictable when Governments are obsessed by league tables, by GCSE and A level results, by success at SATs and by how the Daily Mail might view a year in which ‘standards’ fail to rise - (Shock, Horror, Probe – Minister Involved).
It began in primary schools. Firstly arts, music, sports; then the ‘minor’ academic subjects, little things like History and Geography. Any scheme which could turn sport away from running outside and making it an extra English or maths lesson was deemed ‘best practice’… (‘Let’s measure our long jumps’, ‘Let’s write about how we feel when we win/lose/draw/take part.’ – English and Inclusivity, how could sport get better than that?) Now secondary schools are also narrowing their curriculum, with the three-year GCSE cutting out the breadth of study which once typified British education.
We might produce a few better scientists (actually, we probably won’t) but as people, these narrowly educated whizz-kids are unlikely to know much about music, great literature, drama, art, the world and history. Sadly, that seems to typify the late 2010s: post Brexit, we know that all artists are lefties, the world ends at Hastings and as for history? Well some things are better with a veil drawn over them.
And now comes the backlash. As schools respond to the Government’s unspoken but very clear wishes, and focus more on exams, OFSTED tells us this is wrong. It is against such a backdrop that we consider the increasingly important, but ever harder to deliver, role played by extra-curricular activities.
Teachers Should Offer to Run an Extra-Curricular Activity
When I started out in the early 1980s, many teachers did offer something after school or at lunch time. It was seen as a part of the job. Then again, in those days paperwork was less onerous and, from personal recollection, a part of the interview process was explaining what a candidate could offer to the school outside of the 9-3.30 day. Many teachers still do don their trendy tracksuits or lay out their dusty chess sets, although, anecdotally, I would say far less today than what used to be.
But there are far more compelling reasons for teachers to run extra-curricular activities than simple expectation. Surely, we all want our students to leave our school as rounded as they can be. To deliver that, we need to be as rounded as we can be as teachers. That means really getting to know our students, and them really getting to know us. The most obvious way to facilitate this is spend time with our students in the more relaxed atmosphere of a school club. Boundaries drop, a bit. Relationships grow, a bit. Our students see us as more approachable. We see our students in a setting in which they have chosen to be.
The hour or so a week we commit to these activities is more than repaid by the benefits we reap in the classroom.
More than this, teachers are better at running activities than outside providers. With the possible exceptions of niche interests where teachers may lack experience, simply by knowing our students, and by virtue of the fact that facilitating learning is what we do, we are better at delivering such activities.
Nevertheless, it is important that teachers run clubs that they themselves find interesting. What does not work is a head sensing there is a need for dance provision and pressurising a teacher with neither the slightest interest in, nor skills to deliver, the said activity.
How Should a School Decide What to Offer?
Schools need to consider what skills are available in their community. Beyond that, it does not really matter what is offered, provided there is good variety for all.
I read recently in the Guardian a letter from a Head putting forward his view regarding activities. His was a ‘healthily competitive’ school (presumably, though, not particularly healthy for the non-competitive students who prefer to collaborate rather than compete) which offered everything from team sports to, uhh, heptathlon and darts. He had a ‘healthily competitive’ House System (although, presumably, those students who find the whole chest thumping element of these hierarchy definers unpleasant might employ alternative adjectives). And his first job as Head had been to appoint an activities coordinator who was also director of sport. So, pretty easy to work out where the priorities would lay there.
(It is perhaps no surprise to learn that a quick google search identified this Head as the man in charge of a traditional independent school.)
It really is a common and easily adopted fault to equate ‘extracurricular’ with sport (plus maybe the odd bit of music, and if we are lucky, drama). That is not to say that many students do not love sport, and it should feature as a major part of any extra curricular programme, but it is not everything.
Primarily, surely, we run clubs to enhance the progress of our students. To develop those ‘softer’ elements of learning, such as self-esteem, collaboration, trust. Therefore, the activities we offer must attract the widest range of students possible. And not exclude those whose interests are alternative.
The Best Options?
The more clubs a school can offer, therefore, the better. The more organised the programme is, the less friction is caused and the less stress on students. Some clubs will be for ‘performance’, some for pure fun. (Although, all should be enjoyable.) However hard she tries, a teacher cannot direct a play if her cast are constantly at extra netball, or rugby practice. Therefore, to facilitate the best for the students, where a school runs a lot of activities, a priority system is effective. It reduces the need for students to make choices between competing activities.
Bearing the above in mind, here are my top five extra-curricular activities a school can offer to benefit its students (I make no apologies for any lack of specifics):
Running a hockey team, a tennis team, football and rugby sides is brilliant; putting on plays superb; concerts are hugely uplifting for the performers. All of these are excellent offerings a school could (maybe even should) make.
But I think the finest club I ever saw was run by a teacher who had been approached by a small group of quiet, diverse students. They wanted the chance to do some beading. The teacher agreed. I remember watching in awe as this expert in her trade sat, four students around her, all engaged in lively conversation, all having fun, the students chatting away in a manner they would never do in the classroom.
It was a totally uplifting moment. A reason why we offer clubs. A reason why we teach.