Michael Gove must sometimes think he's wandered into the Twilight Zone. There he is, revolutionising education through a combination of free schools, radical changes to teacher training, reintroducing academic rigour both to the GCSE syllabus and the league tables which score the efforts of individual schools – I could go on, because his white paper certainly does – suffice to say that he was one of the two best reasons for voting Conservative before the election, and remains one of the two best reasons for supporting the Coalition subsequent to the vote (the other best reason, of course, being IDS), and what does he find? The shrill and pointless attacks from the teaching unions on, oh, everything, because the LEA-controlled comprehensive system is such a tremendous success ((c) Fiona Millar) were to be expected. But to have to devote time to a grudge match against sporty Andy Burnham on the utterly parochial topic of how schools organise their competitive sports activities must strike him as one perfect example of how British politics – top-down command and control that would make a Soviet Collective blush – doesn't work.
Rather than telling schools how much money they should spend on competitive sports through the "Schools Sports Partnerships" (a prize if you can work out how many implied apostrophes are missing from that wretched quangoesque name), Mr Gove is going to let headteachers sort this out for themselves. Cue Leftist hysterics, as described on the BBC website:
His Labour counterpart Andy Burnham accused him of jeopardising a decade of improvement in school sports.
And leaders of some of the 450 local School Sports Partnerships (SSPs), which face an uncertain future as a result of the removal of ring-fencing, had accused ministers of risking a cut in the amount of competition pupils take part in.
Risking a cut in the amount of competition pupils can do! If this risk is real – and sadly I doubt that it is – may I offer a counter opinion to the apparently commonly-held view that all competitive sport is A Good Thing, so that the more that we make children do it, the better their lives will be? Jumping, running, throwing things, hitting things, and trying to do these things more quickly than other people, are pointless activities. Do them if you enjoy them, but for heaven's sake stop implying that there's something defective in the child who doesn't want to take part.
At my school the entire purpose of PE seemed to be some sort of fairness thing – it was character-building for you to have a miserable time playing football twice a week, just to somehow make up for being good at maths or English. (David Aaronovitch has beaten me to this conclusion, I see, in today's Times (£)). Despite the best efforts of the 1980s version of the Schools' Sports' Partnerships, those of us who loathed football became experts in nothing other than deception.
I can play the double bass, not because I had an innate desire to be part of the chamber orchestra, but because 'music' was one of the few get-out-of-PE cards the nerdy were allowed to play, and no-one else wanted to play the double bass, as it was a pain to carry it up and down the stairs from the music room to the orchestra hall. And since there was only one double bass available, and I usually had about two notes to play an hour, the orchestra wasn't a musical substitute for the comradeship of the football field. I just stood there at the back, glowering at the audience, occasionally scraping the bow, hard, across the strings. Nearly every aspect of my adult psychology is a dim echo of that angry scraping.
Is all sport then, by definition, a waste of time (with the exception, of course, of swimming, which is more a transcendental exercise in being human than it is a sport)? The rise in obesity (which went hand in hand with Mr Burnham's "decade of improvement in school sports") suggests not. But exercise, which is important, is not identically sport. The extent to which children who enjoy sport are exercising is a good reason for organising such activities; but there are other, non-competitive forms of exercise which never seem to interest politicians. My point is that we do a disservice to children who just happen to hate team sports by insisting that there is something uniquely – almost morally – good in participating in such activities.
I suspect this is one of those topics where I'm so out of kilter with centre-right thinking that I will shortly be very grateful for the new comment moderation policy. Competitive sports fits nicely with the rightwing desire for excellence through, well, competition. I share that desire. I just wish it were directed at things that matter – like learning how to read or how to count or how to behave in a non-aggressive manner to strangers in the street. Ten years of enhanced competitive sports at school, with respect to Mr Burnham, hasn't delivered any of these things.
Discovering which football team is able to defeat some other football team is as exciting as conducting a test to see whether Ariel washes whiter than Persil, and the child who reasons thus shouldn't be treated with a mixture of contempt and suspicion. Or forced to play the double bass, necessarily.