Middle class sport as an exalted gift to the masses is a sentimental myth.
Watching ex-governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King on the Daily Politics today made me sigh. I respect King highly as a financial expert and believe he steered the country very competently through the storm of the recession. However, this is where his expertise should have remained.
King’s latest project is to introduce the sport of cricket to all state schools. Of course, many state schools already offer cricket as part of their sport curriculum, but in the case of this particular project, the focus seemed to be on inner city schools; institutions without perhaps the grounds and space available to offer a full range of sporting activities to pupils.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sport in schools. It is great for pupils’ physical and mental health, team-building etc. But what I object to is the eulogising rhetoric surrounding certain public school favourites, like rugby and cricket. It was obvious that Mervyn King had lovely memories of playing cricket at his own private school and has gone on to be a lifelong fan of the professional game. However, the skills and qualities he claims the sport nurtures in its players could be happily attributed to just about every other team sport you’d care to mention. His love of the game is clearly deeply personal and heartfelt but hardly more than sentimental conjecture.
I did not play cricket at school. My large Essex comprehensive specialised in football and rugby, both of which the pupils still play fixtures in alongside local private and state institutions. I played hockey and netball. Both perfectly enjoyable, if you like that sort of thing, but I would never claim the experience furnished me with characteristics which aided me in my future relationships or career, and I consider myself reasonably successful in both. Quite the contrary, my skills set was learnt in the classroom and at home. The suggestion that those who spent their youth on the cricket pitch or rugby field have somehow greater resilience, care for others or leadership skills than I myself possess makes me cross and in my personal experience is also quite wrong.
The misunderstanding inherent in the view of Mervyn King and his ilk, is that the state model nowadays robs the majority of children of the undisputed benefits of these more traditional sports. In reality, the state system has already moved ahead. My first experience of cricket was seeing a young classmate in primary school being carried away on a stretcher after being hit full in the face by a hard cricket ball. I’ll always remember the profusion of blood that spurted out of his shattered nose.
My daughter plays soft ball cricket with my husband, who is a fanatical fan of the game. She has a great deal of aptitude for bowling. But it would never cross either of our minds for her to join a club that uses a hard cricket ball. In this day and age, as parents, we simply don’t expose our children to unnecessary risks. We haven’t really done so as a wider society since the early eighties.
What King appeared to have failed to realise, is that state schools have introduced a raft of new sports over the last decade; such as dodgeball, tag rugby and kick rounders in primary schools particularly, which children highly enjoy and minimises the scientifically documented risks from repeated head injury, which doctors are only just beginning to fully understand.
In short, we shouldn’t have any part of our schools’ curriculum dictated by the sentimental reminiscences of retired men, who are harking back to the imagined golden days of their privileged childhoods. This approach would be deeply unscientific, based on anecdote and poorly recalled nostalgia which would have the result of stifling the development of new, exciting and more risk free sports that achieve the same results without endangering our children unnecessarily.
State schools are there to promote the greater good. They need to put the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few whilst embracing their individualities and catering for all. They are quick to change with the times when medical and scientific evidence is overwhelming. This ethos is the legacy that my schooldays gave to me. In a few years from now, schools within the remit of the local authority will have universally adopted a sporting curriculum that has evolved away from the use of practices which routinely expose a child to injury. Because children don’t really have a choice about the clubs they attend as pre-teens or the prep schools their parents send them to. It is a culture introduced to them from birth. It’s all about what their siblings and peers are doing. How can an eight or nine year old defer? And what mummy and daddy did as a child isn’t always what’s best for our future generations, let alone gran or grandad.
Maybe I should try and instil the progressive spirit my comprehensive school gave to me into some of our more elite institutions, like Mervyn King has set out to do? Well, of course I wouldn’t, because that would be deeply patronising and superior of me. So why do our inner city comprehensives have to put up with it?
My advice would be to return to the area that is your expertise, Mervyn, and leave education to those who properly understand it and have a less sentimental perspective.