English Schools and where High Schools often go wrong

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This July sees the annual English Schools’ athletics championships. Every year, the cream of England’s junior athletes compete for their counties in the hope of following in great sporting footsteps. It has uncovered some of Team GB’s best-known athletics superstars and the winners can consider themselves as the country’s bright hopes for the future.

English Schools, shown live on Sky Sports, is often called the “Kid‘s Olympics” as competitors have to achieve tough qualifying standards, and win area and regional events to be selected. Being chosen is a real honour, and is many up and coming athletes first taste of a huge sporting event.

But, amazingly, it’s not something that’s spoken about much, if at all, in our high schools. And the county events for kids that win their local events are, on the whole, very poorly attended. The one closest to me in Macclesfield, Cheshire, for example, had loads of events, particularly in the Intermediate and Senior age groups that took place as straight finals, with as little as one or two athletes taking part due to competitors not turning up. It was extremely disappointing. Especially when you think many competing were only a couple of runs, jumps or throws away from possible English Schools’ selection.

So where does the problem lie in getting school children to these events? Some of the feedback suggests that the schools themselves don’t push children to go. Sometimes they don’t even know they’re on. As the athletes aren’t representing the school directly, there’s no obligation on the school’s part to make them turn up. It’s not like a football or netball tournament where you’re part of a team that depends on you. And some pupils have been heard to say they’re not going because they won’t win. Imagine if they applied that outlook to everything in life; they wouldn’t get very far.

The truth of the matter is that athletics is still very much a minor sport. It isn’t given the status, media-coverage or money that football is. If faced with a choice of wanting to become a professional footballer or athlete, most boys will opt for football because of the glamour associated with it and the promise of untold riches.  

Coaching of athletics at schools is chronically underfunded and inadequate, too. Schools have basic or no equipment, teachers don’t know how to measure performances properly and there’s no focus on improving technique and nurturing talent. For the majority of teachers, athletics is simply another option for pupils to do in games lessons during summer. The county and area competitions outside of school aren’t important to them, and they don’t understand what a great chance students could have of starting a wonderful athletics career by competing in them.

Our country boasts an enviable history of producing world-class athletes in all sorts of disciplines. To continue that tradition, we need our teachers to embrace athletics and encourage talented children to compete at more events. Let’s hope a change comes soon.