The Sports Day dilemma

Does competitive sport still have a place in our schools?

Beth Fenner

Does competitive sport still have a place in our schools?

Sports Day Sack Race ©D.taylor.shaut 

Sports Day, a day that splits the nation. Some have fond memories of winning medals or trophies, racing their friends to victory and relishing a competition that they could shine in. Others wish they could forget altogether, the day bringing back memories of humiliation and anxiety. In our increasingly politically correct society, sports days have been a hot topic of debate, with suggestions that they no longer have a place in schools because they are unfair on the children who do not have a sporting talent. But, is this really a reasonable argument for scrapping competition that gives a different group of children the platform to excel?

Last place. A place that no one strives for, but which is inevitable for at least one team or individual where competition is concerned. Someone will always have to lose, but is this really a good enough excuse to cut off competition altogether? Humiliation is a word that is often associated with losing in a sporting competition. Think of the England football team, currently in Russia, the nations hopes on their shoulders once again. Think of the fifty years the country has waited for global success, only to be disappointed each time. Despite all that, have they given up on competing altogether? No, they pick themselves back up and try again. Yes, it can be argued that they are paid to do it, but this same determination to never give up is reflected in competitive sport at all levels; if a school team doesn’t win a tournament, the simple solution is just to train harder. If our children see their role models and heroes fighting back after a devastating loss, they will too. That’s what competitive sport teaches us, to lose with integrity and to win with honesty and to stare at humiliation in the face and laugh back. It teaches us a number of values that are transferable into our everyday lives that many other subjects cannot. Values such as teamwork, leadership, communication, and discipline can all be learned through competition. Competition is a true reflection of life; sometimes we will fail, but we learn from our mistakes, pick ourselves back up and try again, a lesson that holds more importance for the majority than learning about equations or semi colons.

On an episode of Good Morning Britain[1], presenters Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid clashed over this exact issue of competitive sports days. Susanna articulated that because sport is so important and good for us, to just reward those good at sport will exclude children and discourage involvement in exercise, which would be detrimental to our children’s health. This can be seen in obesity figures This continues to be the case with statistics from 2018 suggesting that childhood obesity is prevalent in 20% of all children in year 6. These figures show little sign of changing over the past 10 years, indicating that we need to do more to get our children involved in sport and exercise. It can therefore be argued that the use of competitive sport would be detrimental to increasing participation in sport, as many children are put off when, despite trying their best, they cannot achieve the success of their friends. Consequently many people suggest that celebrating participation, by getting rid of all competition and introducing participation certificates and medals is the way forward to ensuring all children enjoy getting involved in sport.



Despite the encouragement for participation in sport, academic exams still take an important role in our children’s education. This is a cause for contestation amongst those that champion competitive sport, as if people don’t think it’s fair for children that don’t excel physically, why is it fair to test those children who do not excel academically? Many dispute that exams are academic competitions, and once again there has to be a child that comes bottom. In fact, statistics from Childline[3] exemplify that there has been an 11% rise in counselling sessions given based on exam stress in the past two years. So if exams are detrimental to mental health of children, why are they not being discouraged like competitive sport is?

Figures suggest [4]that participation rates of children who have been involved in competitive school sport in the past 12 months are significantly lower than in 2012. Only 42% of children have played sport in their school in organised competition compared to 53% in 2012 and participation rates in events such as sports day have also decreased. In addition, just 76% of children aged 5-15 participated in competitive sport in or outside school in the past 12 months compared to 80% in 2012. These stark differences indicate that competitive sport is slowly starting to decline in our schools, reflecting our societies increasing concerns about this issue.

On balance, encouragement of participation is vital to combating our nations childhood obesity problems, as well as ensuring our children gain fundamental values imperative to development. After all, getting involved is what really matters and is what will inspire longevity in sports participation. However, children who excel in sport should be given their moment to shine, like their academic counterparts would be. As Piers Morgan stated, children are good at different things, so why can’t they be allowed to celebrate their success. Ultimately, sports day and competitive sport should be here to stay.

Beth Fenner






Is school sport still too ‘gendered’?

After gender specific sport has plagued our PE lessons for decades, change is starting to take place for the better.

Beth Fenner

After gender specific sport has plagued our PE lessons for decades, change is starting to take place for the better.

Gender is commonly accepted as a fluid concept. But why is PE and sport still so rigid?

Gender, a term that has been catapulted into the forefront of society over the past year, continues to create debates amongst the sporting world. Despite the acceptance of gender as a fluid concept and campaigns from Hollywood to the BBC advocating for the equal treatment of women, sport still remains one of the last preserves of masculine ideals. But are these issues deep-rooted within school sport or are they starting to change?

It is common knowledge that men are still more likely to participate in sport later in life with 40.5% of men taking part in sport at least once a week compared to 31.9% of women, often as a direct impact of an individual’s school sport experience[1]. Evidence still shows that boys are more likely to be offered sports such as baseball and rugby and girls cheerleading, netball and hockey in PE lessons[2]. This institutional segregation of boys and girls into sports deemed ‘gender appropriate’ from a young age influences young people’s decisions to participate in certain sports beyond school. Yet, this seems to be changing for the younger generation who have been bought up in a more accepting society.

There’s been a surge of interest in women’s sport in recent years. In 2016, the women’s GB Hockey side claimed a Gold medal at the Rio Olympics. Last year saw a World Cup win for England’s women’s cricketers (and three of the ‘Five Cricketers of the Year’ in the age-old Wisden Almanack being women), and a runners up for the England Rugby Union side in the women’s World Cup. And 2018 has already seen glory for England’s netballers, who claimed Gold at the Commonwealth Games against all the odds. Media coverage has never been more extensive. However, the question is whether this is being replicated at grassroots level. Tom Simmons, a primary school PE coach from Rotherham, said: “At primary school age I don’t think there are many gender differences at all to be honest. In my experience boys and girls at primary school age get fully involved in PE lessons and any sports no matter what the content. Staff within primary schools tend to do a good job in regards to encouraging both boys and girls to participate in all sports and creating an environment where there is no stigma attached to what people participate in. Both boys and girls participate in the same PE lessons as equals within a primary school environment”. Safi Ahmed, a primary school teacher from the Dales agrees: “I don’t think schools push children into stereotypical gendered sports. We follow a rising stars program which allows all children to participate in a range of sports from multi skills and tag rugby to gymnastics and dance. I think it is beneficial to have mixed PE lessons during school and all our after school clubs are also mixed.”


It therefore seems that at least some schools are changing for the better. The question is whether this transfers to secondary schools. Gillian Twaite, who has a daughter in year 7 at a school in Birmingham, said: “At my daughter’s secondary school both boys and girls do all sports on a rotation together and she has got the chance to experience basketball, gymnastics and cross country. At primary school she got invited to a gifted and talented girls cricket training session and a mixed sports camp where they did a range of sports, again both boys and girls together”. The fact that girls and boys are now being encouraged to participate together in educational institutions at a young age is crucial to ensuring both sexes learn to appreciate and respect one another as equals not just in sporting situations but within daily life.

There is no doubt that Women’s sport is now well and truly in the limelight and this can only be beneficial in terms of participation levels for girls at school, but there is still one major factor that deters girls from pursuing sport further; the social stigma that surrounds them, especially from male counterparts[3]. A recent Channel 4 documentary No more boys and girls: Can our kids go gender free? exemplifies how children as young as 7 already hold the beliefs that girls are weaker than boys, especially in a sporting situation, with the girls under-estimating and the boys over-estimating their abilities. Gillian Twaite explained: “One of the issues I believe there to be is that girls make other girls feel like they should just sit around and chat. What shocked me is that children as young as 9 would make comments suggesting that if you were a girl rushing around the playground you were ‘weird’. My daughter gets really frustrated with this. There’s generally even more pressure at secondary school for pre-pubescent girls to ‘sit and talk’. I believe that this could have an impact on the types of sports girls choose to participate in and whether they wish to participate at all.” In addition, her daughter attended the football club at her primary school, where they ran a number of mixed football clubs and even had coaches from Aston Villa. However, one particular Year 6 session only had boys signed up making her daughter the only girl. This deterred her from continuing as her boy mates wouldn’t be natural with her in case they got teased.

It is clear that despite the developments within schools, the increase of opportunities for both boys and girls and the change of attitude in the recent years towards mixed PE lessons, the role of the media still has an overarching influence on participation levels in the later years of school life. Tom Simmons stated: “Personally I believe that the image the media (social media, magazines, what they see on the internet) creates has a huge impact on gendered participation. Having said that, children don’t take much interest in social media until year 6 or the start of secondary school years when the idea of self-image becomes really important to young boys and girls and how they come across to others such as friends and the opposite sex”. Dave Emmerson, who is head of PE at his primary school in Wensleydale, also says: ““I think external clubs and media influences for primary school aged children push boys and girls into stereotypically gendered sport more than schools do. In our school, we have mixed PE lessons, but I know that others don’t. I personally think it’s more beneficial to have them together”. It seems that primary schools are embracing the culture of mixed lessons but this may not transcend into secondary schools, despite the dropout of girls being most prominent at this stage of education. With so many mixed sports seen in events like the Olympics such as badminton and tennis and up and coming sports such as korfball, it is disheartening to not see this replicated at school. The media clearly holds a prestigious place within our young generation’s lives and with males still being put on a sporting pedestal above females in society, there is no wonder that there is so much pressure on young people to adhere to gender behaviours that are deemed ‘appropriate’.

What can be learnt from this is that without the stark separation of boys and girls at school into gender specific sports or single sex lessons, it will instil the belief within our young generation that both sexes have the ability to pursue any sport equally. Challenging ingrained social stigmas and perceptions is the most powerful way of ensuring eventual equality for all. Primary and especially secondary schools need to be leading advocates in inspiring both boys and girls through sport in order to confront the gender order that our media outlets have sadly established. However it is apparent our education systems are starting to make positive changes to create sporting opportunities with no gender boundaries.

Beth Fenner

[1] Sport England (2017) Active Lives Adult Survey: May 16/17 Report

2Quick, S., Simon, A., and Thornton, A (2010). PE and sport survey 2009/10

3Women’s Sports Foundation (2018) Factors Influencing Girl’s Participation In Sports


How ‘active’ is physical activity for children?

Henry Dorling


With physical activity being claimed more frequently as the way to ‘cure’ children of sedentary ‘diseases’ in society, how difficult is to address this at the grass roots, where it really matters?

There is plenty of information out there that relates to the problem we have in this country with inactivity and it is of particular concern in children. Studies have concluded that non communicable diseases can be attributed to inactivity and that the issue is becoming more and more prevalent, particularly in young people. There is a clear need for a more active culture to be encouraged in society which may go some way to address the issues. UKactive have recently published a ‘blueprint’ to make the nation more active, Sport England published ‘Towards an Active Nation’ and the Government have written a new ‘Sporting Future’ strategy but how easy is it to implement this kind of policy at the grassroots, where it really matters and makes a difference? If it is young people who need to be targeted with this policy then school based interventions, helping to increase physical activity and an awareness of the benefits, should be encouraged and supported. Pupils in a school setting are a captive audience and spend the majority of their time in this environment and so it would make sense to use this time to benefit their health and well-being. In addition some studies have shown the benefits of increased activity and movement to their academic attainment and learning, so it would seem to make clear sense to combine physically active and movement based lessons and activities within the school curriculum to benefit them in many different ways. However, my experience of most primary schools is a sedentary learning culture, a ‘table-centric’ approach to learning. Yes there is PE (but less than there used to be) and yes they go outside at break times, however there is much less, indeed in some cases a total lack, of integrated physical activity and learning happening within schools. Why is this the case if schools are arguably the best environment for things like this to work? There are many obvious reasons but there seems to be an issue with the opportunity for children to access more physically active and movement based learning in what is already a convoluted and test-focussed curriculum. Indeed in 2012 the Conservative Government announced more testing of 7 year olds in the curriculum and as recently as this month (February 2018) announced further testing of pupils’ times tables, all of which will hardly allow teachers and pupils the perceived time and resources needed for a more physically active curriculum. Although primary schools are enthused by more physical activity based interventions and programmes and are keen to be part of them, they seem less likely to be able to fully embrace those opportunities to their full potential due to how fixed their cultural ideals are or by how restricted the Government has made things for them.


If we are to really make a difference and change the inactivity culture, we all need to buy in to it and in particular in a school setting, they need to be given the freedom to try things, to understand what works and make it part of everyday school life. They should not focus on core academic subjects and leave no room for anything creative, in fact it should be the opposite; make more room for creativity in the form of movement and innovative physically active lessons which incorporates the academic subject matter, not separately but embedded as one. Many schools reduce the amount of physical activity in their curriculum and replace this with extra core curriculum subjects, however it seems clear that more physical activity in the classroom will reap many clear and tangible benefits. At Solent University a programme called EduMove (Education through Movement) attempts to bridge the gap between policy and practice by using innovative cross curricular methods to embed a physically active teaching and learning culture within primary schools. This programme is reaching out to many schools in order to offer Teachers and Senior Leaders a framework to more easily implement and embed the opportunities and methods they so desperately know work, but are unable to find the time or resources to deliver.

Unused PE equipment ©Sportexamined

Policies and new ways of thinking about the value of physical activity such as the Sport England and Government strategies are a great starting point and set out many clear and relevant policy recommendations around physical activity, but what is does not do like many policy documents, is look at how realistic these are to implement, and how it sits alongside other related policy. For example, along with the call for an increase in a whole school approach to physical activity perhaps it should also recommend less testing in schools, more focus on integrated models of teaching and learning, more training of teachers in physical activity delivery, more funding, less focus on Ofsted, less red tape, and more time for Teachers and practitioners to get children inspired with movement and physical activity and an understanding of the benefits it brings, as opposed to spending half their week on admin, planning and tests. We are one step forward to embedding physical activity within society with these recent policy documents along with other relevant recommendations such as the British Heart Foundation’s document on physical activity for children and young people or the Government’s Change4 Life evidence review however we will be taking a number of steps back if it is all too difficult and unrealistic to implement programmes such as this in schools and communities where it really matters and can make a real difference. If it doesn’t happen then are we simply seeing policy rhetoric that will fall flat due to a lack of understanding about how to implement? Perhaps the Government and others need some physically active learning strategies of their own…..

Henry Dorling


Links to documents and websites

NCD and inactivity study


Childhood inactivity


UKActive blueprint for an active britain


Sport England Towards and Active Nation


Sporting Future strategy


BBC news article on study linking academic performance and physical activity


Link to Nicky Morgan reference


Times tables tests


Link to Government report on what works in schools and colleges

Click to access What_works_in_schools_and_colleges_to_increas_physical_activity.pdf


clear and tangible benefits


Southampton Solent University


BHF Physical activity for children and young people

Change4 Life Evidence review

Click to access Change4Life_Evidence_review_26062015.pdf

Academic References

Stierlin et al. (2015) A systematic review of determinants of sedentary behaviour in youth: a DEDIPAC study International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 12:133


Haapala EA, Poikkeus A-M, Kukkonen-Harjula K, Tompuri T, Lintu N, et al. (2014) Associations of Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior with Academic Skills – A Follow-Up Study among Primary School Children. PLoS ONE 9(9): e107031. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0107031


Howie, Erin K. and Pate, Russell R. (2012) Physical activity and academic achievement in children: A historical perspective; Journal of Sport and Health Science 1 (2012) 160-169 Elsevier


Catherine N. Rasberry , Sarah M. Lee , Leah Robin , B.A. Laris, Lisa A. Russell, Karin K. Coyle, Allison J. Nihiser (2011) The association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance: A systematic review of the literature Journal of Preventive Medicine 52 (2011) S10–S20 Elsevier


Jaimie McMullen Pamela Kulinna Donetta Cothran (2014) Physical Activity Opportunities During the School Day: Classroom Teachers’ Perceptions of Using Activity Breaks in the Classroom; Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 2014, 33, 511-527 Human Kinetics


Lee, I.-M., Shiroma, E. J., Lobelo, F., Puska, P., Blair, S. N., & Katzmarzyk, P. T. (2012). Impact of Physical Inactivity on the World’s Major Non-Communicable Diseases. Lancet, 380(9838), 219–229.

Farooq MA, Parkinson KN, Adamson AJ, et al Timing of the decline in physical activity in childhood and adolescence: Gateshead Millennium Cohort Study Br J Sports Med Published Online First: 13 March 2017. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2016-096933


Bartholomew, John B.; Jowers, Esbelle M.; Roberts, Gregory; Fall, Anna-Mária; Errisuriz, Vanessa L.; Vaughn, Sharon; Active Learning Increases Children’s Physical Activity across Demographic Subgroups; Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine: January 1, 2018 – Volume 3 – Issue 1 – p 1–9