What are the school sports that encourage learning? It makes a lot of sense when you think about it.  Kids tied up in class all day, especially in our ever-pressured school system, are going to benefit from getting out and running around.  Not only that, their physical fitness will improve, something of increasing importance these days when obesity is a growing problem.  But if the words make common sense, then delivering the practice is more challenging.

The Problem of Obesity

Numbers suggest that twenty per cent of children enter school already obese; that figure increases to more than thirty per cent by the end of primary school.  These are frightening figures.  While obesity is a much bigger problem among the poorest ten per cent of the population than the remainder, it is also the case that there are far fewer overweight children in independent schools than in the maintained sector.

That statement may well cause some hackles to rise, but it is nevertheless true.  The link between high activity and low obesity looks obvious, but like much of education, there is probably a more complex link.  Many independent schools really do offer a lot of sports that encourage learning, which is one of their biggest attractions to parents.  Four or five days a week will include something sporting, often team games, plus  Saturday fixtures are common, as are match afternoons, often a Wednesday.  Organisation is usually such that almost every child plays.  Compared to the two hours maximum in many maintained schools, that is a lot of sport.

Quantity And Quality

Where, of course, many independent schools fall down is in the nature of the sports offered.  Dislike rugby, hockey and netball at your peril.  Other than perhaps a block of six gymnastics lessons, or a bit of swimming, team sports dominate.  That is fine for many, but not all.

But finding the right answers is not easy.  A few years ago, I joined the panel designing the new National Curriculum in sport, re-jigged under Gove’s regime.  It soon became evident that the Government had already made up its mind where it was going, but the experience was still interesting. Of the maybe fifty people present, only two were teachers.  Most of the others were representatives of particular sporting interests.

The conclusion was clear; it did not matter what the sport was, as long as there was plenty of it.  The only thing that needed to be included was the particular sport that person represented.  Do anything, as long as it is made up of football and rugby and cricket and gymnastics and swimming and hockey and lacrosse and polo and Rugby Fives and the Eton Wall Game and Cheese Rolling…

My own contribution was to suggest the match afternoon, of which I was then a great fan (and still am, in some ways) but that was poo-pooed by all, except the sports that would be played in those matches.

Not Everybody Is Competitive

In deciding on the best five sports for schools to offer, a little can be learned from practice in the Independent sector.  It is brilliant for the sporty and competitive – more often boys, more often younger students – but can represent a nightmare to those for whom competition is anathema, where every session seems to consist of being shouted at by Games Master and being picked last for the football team or put at goal defence in the netball side.  And then there’s the pleasure of squashed, sweaty changing rooms and cold communal showers at the end.

With that in mind, here are some ideas for a collection of sports that encourage learning and that might help to address the enthusiasm of many students, both the competitive and non-competitive, while inspiring the mental and physical fitness that comes from regular activity.  The maintained sector is not going to triple its sporting provision overnight.  Therefore, it will never provide enough time to ensure fitness for all. What good sporting provision can offer is motivation for young people to become engaged in sport out of school.  And that means it has to be fun.  So, sorry, athletics is off.

A Team Sport

And it is hard to see beyond football for this.  These days, it is a sport popular with boys and girls.  It is easy to play with few rules and regulations.  It works indoors and outdoors, on grass and on astro turf.  The sport has an inbuilt attraction for many children, and it is also one that can be coached with relative ease.  Many kids continue to play out of school, with organised leagues taking over from the park kick-arounds in which many of us participated when we were younger.

A Racket Sport

Team sports do not suit all, but individual racket sports can provide good opportunity for young people.  Tennis is the obvious example, but for this, and all such sports, there are a few problems.  Firstly, coaching tennis is highly technical, done wrongly it can have detrimental effects from which recovery is hard.  Hitting a ball with an extension on an arm is much tougher than using a hand and it does not work too well with most very young children.  A lot of space is needed to make the sport worthwhile, since it is hard to get more than eight on a court for a useful practice, and a match restricts participation further.  (A brief word on Fives here…I got into the game several years ago and while a special court is needed for some varieties, it can work in a squash court.  The game involves hitting a ball with the hand so it strikes a wall.  It is both immensely simple and, at the highest levels, extremely skilful.  Think squash without a racket…)

An Inclusive sport

Many years ago, I ran a contact rugby club for Upper primary school children.  I offered it to several local schools; some greeted the opportunity enthusiastically, others gave a definite ‘No!’, worried that they might end up facing a negligence charge if a child got injured.  In those days, there was much to be said for the sport.  It was easy to play – pick up a ball and run.  There were technical elements which made teaching it fun, such as the tackle and scrummage, but most of all, it was truly a sport for all…boys at least.  Then the game began to lose its gender bias, and became better still.  The thing was, small kids, big kids, fast kids, strong kids, heavy kids…all had their role to play.

Then, sadly, everything changed. Adaptations to rules for younger ages meant that Rugby turned into a sport that encourage learning and a sport for the fittest and fastest.  Scrums ceased to be competitive, and there was no longer any wait for the prop to trundle up – the nearest kids just formed a scrum.  Suddenly, the role of the slower, bigger child disappeared, and rugby became ‘any sport’, a sort of less attractive soccer.  It’s a huge shame and will, with all the worries around injuries and concussions, potentially spell the end of rugby as a major British sport. Short-sighted.

With the demise of the oval ball, I recommend bat and ball games.  Kwik Cricket is brilliant.  A bat, a ball and an area to play on is all that is needed.  Longball is another great activity, a sort of rounders with a bigger bat.  Adapt the rules as you see fit.  Softball is another sport that is both accessible and fun to play.

An indoor sport

Not every child gets a thrill from muddy knees; not every child is happy to get wet and cold.   Indoor sports offer a solution.  Facilities are needed, and this can make it difficult to engage a large group, and especially challenging for smaller primary schools.  The school hall can be used, but is often too tiny to do much in the way of running around, and the Year 4 teacher gets annoyed when her carefully crafted display on the Incas becomes creased and torn.

Nevertheless, a good range of indoor activities can be handy on a wet day, or for those who really prefer not to be outside (I am talking students, not teachers, here).  There’s a lot of sports that can be played – five a side football is one.  The activity is so intense that a class of thirty can easily be usefully taught, firstly with a few skills then with a competition.  Indoor cricket is a good alternative, for which there are numerous variations.  Netball and basketball are also good sports that encourage learning. These sports work well, and again can include large numbers for drills and plenty of action in the ‘tournament.’

A non-competitive sport

Some students simply hate sport.  The competitive element does not appeal to them, and they wait with trepidation for the point the ultra-competitive kids shout at them for dropping a catch or mis-placing a pass.  Early failure, over competitive coaches, poor teaching all contribute to that hatred.

But dance is a popular, exciting, cross gender and aerobically sound activity which is also relatively easy to teach, simple to resource and helps with flexibility.  Include it in your programme.

It’s About Running And Fun

A final point.  Surely school sport that encourage learning should also be a fun.  Unless staffing is exceptional schools cannot offer the kind of coaching that a club or academy provides.  But they can create the opportunity to get children active and enjoying themselves.

The problem is that Maggie Thatcher sold all the sports fields, then we started to get too serious about sport.  The fun went out of it.  A good school programme will seek to address everybody’s needs, from the kid who loves football and will play it every day to the child who prefers to be indoors, and the ones who don’t care about winners and losers.

We wouldn’t teach English and Maths in exactly the same way to different kids (maybe under the current Government we would, but that’s another story) so why should sport be a one size fits all aspect of the curriculum?  It is vital we get it right.

Lives could depend on it.