Of the students I taught, it is those who are now teachers rather than elite athletes of whom I am most proud

There is so much to commend in Ofsted’s recent report ‘Going the extra mile: Excellence in competitive school sport’. On the back of co-editing ‘The A-Z of School Improvement through PE and Sport’ (#AZPE) it was incredibly heartening to read Ofsted’s endorsement of the same message that sport is “a key component in building self-esteem, school ethos and academic excellence”.

Moreover, Ofsted pronounce that “children’s education is poorer if they are deprived of the chance to compete”. And so say all of us! The benefits of appropriate competition in sport, handled well, can be far-reaching across the curriculum (see C is for Competition for Learning and Improvement by James Capper in #AZPE).

What’s more, of the eight recommendations* that Ofsted put forward for maintained schools and academies, I would support, applaud and advocate seven of them.

But here’s the rub: I do not entirely endorse their fourth recommendation and disagree philosophically and whole-heartedly with their two recommendations for the government**.

Here’s why.

Ofsted’s fourth recommendation for maintained schools and academies says that they should “expect all students to participate in regular competitive sport and ensure that there is provision to meet this demand”. My issues with this recommendation are two-fold:

  1. Despite my own passion for sport and all of the health, social and educational benefits that it brings, I fully accept that for some young people it is the antithesis of ‘a good time’. I fully accept that if they choose to seek their competitive outlets through dance, art, debating, chess or any other worthwhile pursuit, then that is their right to do so. Of course I want to see every child who wants to having the opportunity to compete in sport, but expecting every child to undertake “regular competitive sport” is fanciful. We’ll look at the independent-state school argument on this later.
  2. If schools are to “ensure that there is provision to meet this demand”, then this requires a properly funded national strategy.

Ofsted mention “the” national strategy for improving competitive sport in maintained secondary schools and academies. There isn’t one! The House of Commons Education Committee report “School sport following London 2012: No more political football” made the following recommendation:

“School sport is too important to rely on occasional efforts at pump-priming; the Government must commit to a long-term vision for school sport accompanied by long-term funding. We recommend that the Government sets out a plan for the sustained support and development of its school sports policy, to include measures to ensure a cross-departmental vision and effective working across all relevant departments” (p.47)

I am yet to find anyone who knows where any such policy lies, despite asking at two recent conferences involving politicians and leaders in sport and education. Wales, it would seem, is streaking ahead in this regards.

But back to Ofsted.

Despite the excellent advocacy about the benefits of sport for education contained in the report, it could be argued that those arguments are undermined by their two recommendations to government.

For me, the debate about the number of Olympic athletes and medallists coming from the independent sector is a red herring. As a group of schools with state academies and independent schools, one of which (Surbiton High School) proudly contributed to this Ofsted survey, I have learned at least two things so far:

  1. You cannot compare the two. The level of resourcing available to our independent schools is in a different league to that of the majority of our state academies. If there are a few state schools which can compete on a human or financial resource basis, then good luck to them, but for the majority this would be a futile cause. I recognise that Ofsted mention it is as much about attitude as it is resource, but I know of many head teachers who are passionate about sport and who do the best that they possibly can, but without a properly funded national strategy they face competing and equally compelling demands for the same resource. (see Geoff Barton’s piece in the TES here).
  2. You should not compare the two. Each sector has their own challenges and each has elements of practice which are outstanding. Our independent schools and state academies are working in collaboration to enable all young people to have exceptional experiences, no matter which of the institutions they attend. In recent weeks state school students and their independent school peers have:

    a. competed against each other in football;

    b. worked on new rugby partnership involving students from across sectors in one academy linked to a professional club;

    c. taken part in a residential coaching course using the boarding facility of one of our independent schools;

    d. worked in collaboration as a Youth Sport Ambassador Team;

    e. planned a series of competitions between them next year in over eight sports.

Partnership is the key; working together across the sectors to benefit all young people. Within United Learning’s group of schools we do not compare between sectors; instead, we try to celebrate the distinctiveness of each sector and enable each to learn from the other for mutual benefit.

Many of our independent schools are able to recruit top elite athletes into either their PE or coaching cadre or into their academic staff. Many have a fleet of minibuses. Most have a whole year group out on an afternoon for fixtures. Several have boarding facilities so are able to attract elite performers and provide for their education, sporting and welfare needs. It is not an envious ‘pen’ that writes those words but a pragmatic one.

For each of those schools cannot do enough to contribute to the mission of our group to bring about ‘the best in everyone’. Surbiton High School; Caterham School; Bournemouth Collegiate School; Hull Collegiate School; Guildford High School to name but a few – all have contributed a significant amount to the cross-sector sporting ambitions of our group. Whether they also produce more elite athletes than a local academy is irrelevant, as long as both schools are providing high quality PE and school sport that meets the needs of its students. Olympic sports participation is not a measure of accountability for the maintained sector’s PE profession and nor should it be.

My experience of the state sector does not reflect the finding of Ofsted that “many state schools treat competitive sport as an optional extra or fail to deliver it in any meaningful way”. Sure, some don’t, but “many”?

It reminds me of the conversation that happened frequently when I was a head of PE and challenged about the lack of school sport nationally.

Them: “There’s no sport in schools these days.”
Me: “We actually have practices and fixtures every night of the week across several sports, for both sexes and all age groups.”
Them: “Well, you’re obviously the exception.”
Me: “Then against whom are we playing?”

Ofsted do mention the high participation rates in maintained schools and academies, but this comes across as of secondary importance to them. I actually believe that the competitive school sport situation (as evidenced by the School Games numbers) is more optimistic than this report finds, but nonetheless, there is work to be done in some schools to re-install the place of sport in a rounded education.

But schools and the PE profession report to the DfE. Elite and community sport (UK Sport and Sport England) report into DCMS. Ofsted again highlight one of the issues in that they are linking elite sport with education. I am not convinced that many PE teachers out there measure their success by the number of elite athletes they produce. They have an education remit, not an elite sport one. So the statement I made at the outset remains, I am more proud of any youngster that went on to teach because of their experiences in our department than any youngster who, through their hard work and the support of their family, club and national governing body went on to sporting success.

So if Ofsted want to see an improvement in competitive school sport in the maintained sector, here are a couple of our recommendations to them:

  1. Give school PE and school sport provision a higher priority during section 5 inspections and reporting;
  2. In doing so, focus on curriculum outcomes, participation rates and competitive sport in equal measure;
  3. Strengthen the focus of inspections on the links between PE, school sport, health and school improvement – this would be a much better use of time than needlessly investigating alumni success;
  4. Where you have influence, encourage the government to create a long-term fully-funded cross-party, cross-department strategy as per the Education Committee’s report.

Those of us in the profession have always gone the extra mile to enthuse the next generation of active citizens, to inspire the next cohort of PE teachers and, perhaps, to support the next cadre of elite athletes. With their remit to monitor standards of education it would be a pity if Ofsted solely focused on the latter.


*Ofsted’s recommendations to maintained schools and academies (p.9):

  1. recognise the role competitive sport plays in building the whole person, enriching the student experience and improving the school ethos
  2. embed competitive sport firmly in the school culture and ethos and make it a central part of school life, involving staff, parents, students and governors, and taking every opportunity to celebrate and reward success
  3. ensure that there is a well-structured and supported competitive sports programme that provides opportunities for all students to participate in competitive sport and stretches the most able
  4. expect all students to participate in regular competitive sport and ensure that there is provision to meet this demand
  5. ensure that the most able students have access to the range of high quality support and facilities needed to develop their skills and fitness
  6. foster meaningful sporting links with local and professional sports clubs to encourage more students to regularly compete in sport in their own time
  7. develop the partnerships needed to build sporting pathways – from primary school to secondary school and with the local and professional sports clubs
  8. improve the quality of competitive school sports programmes by learning from the best about how to produce high quality sports programmes:
  • offer a range of sports but prioritise a few to excel at
  • provide enough time in both the PE curriculum and the sports enrichment programme to attain high standards in these sports
  • utilise expert coaches to work alongside teachers to coach more able students and school teams, holding them to account for the success achieved by students.

** Ofsted’s recommendations to the government (p.9):

  1. ensure that the national strategy for improving competitive sport in maintained secondary schools and academies has a specific focus on improving the proportions of athletes reaching elite levels from state schools
  2. monitor and report on the proportions of elite athletes from different educational backgrounds to determine whether the national strategy is having an impact; in particular, it should report on these proportions prior to the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic games to raise public awareness of this issue.