This is a guest blog kindly contributed by John Claughton, who was Chair of HMC Sports Committee from 2009 to 2016 and the Chief Master of King Edward’s School, Birmingham from 2006 to 2016.
Professor Clough of Huddersfield University produced research for HMC that proved that taking part in competitive team games at school was not detrimental to performance in public examinations. Well, fancy that.
About 25 years ago, I was Master in charge of Cricket at Eton College and the authorities there set about analysis of the academic performance of those who rowed in the school eights. They proved, I seem to remember, that rowing turned out to be good for academic performance. I don’t think that was the result they expected, or even wanted, but it was the result. I am not sure that they proved the same for the cricket 1st XI, but that’s another story.
Of course, those of us who spend our afternoons and early evenings on playing fields or rivers, and not only at Eton, know exactly why this is so. Organised team sport provides the perfect antidote to the demands of academic study: it gives structure to the day, balancing work and play, physical activity and sedentary, mental activity; it provides distraction, entertainment, laughter and a collaborative form of competition. Because sport both matters and doesn’t matter, it teaches us to cope time and again with transient triumphs and disasters. It was doing resilience and well-being before they were invented.
Of course, I have to face two truths. The first is that I am an unreliable witness. Ever since I was in a pram, I have spent every Saturday afternoon for the last 60 years on one side of a touchline line or a boundary line, as spectator, player, ranting coach and placid head. Indeed, I am a member of a strange religious sect that believes that it is physically and spiritually impossible to work on a Saturday between the hours of 2 and 5 pm.
The second is that, despite the fact that the value of sport for schoolchildren is obvious beyond doubt, even before Professor Clough’s revelation, not all parents seemed to agree with me. Indeed, as the years of headship went by, I spent more and more of my time dealing with parents who could not see this obvious truth. I do worry that not even Professor Clough will change their minds. If I couldn’t persuade parents, then how can he?
However, one thing might help. And it goes like this. When Oxford and Cambridge come to schools peddling their academic wares, they make a point of saying that they care not a jot about the non-academic achievements of candidates. ‘We only want geeks’ is what they say. Of course, this runs entirely contrary to the message that schools want to convey and it encourages students, and their parents, to think that serious academic study is the only game in town – if you know what I mean. Of course, we all know that life at Oxford and Cambridge is not like that: just think of all those boathouses and all those boats and all those college sports grounds. If Oxford and Cambridge could convey that academic excellence matters but so does a balanced Aristotelian life, then more students – and their parents – might be convinced to live that life at school.