What is the point of school sport?

Indian dancing has borne the brunt of David Cameron’s criticism of school sports. In return, he’s received considerable flack and even accusations of casual racism and cultural ignorance.

Cameron’s point here isn’t, however, something specific about Indian dancing. His criticism is of non-competitive and non-traditional sports in general, and it could be a perfectly valid one.

To work out whether sports such as Indian dancing are valuable, we have to ask ourselves what is the point of sport in schools?

Is it to keep students fit? Like balanced school meals, compulsory school sport ensures that, while on the school grounds at least, students are doing what is best for their health.

Is it to develop a competitive spirit? One of the explanations offered for private school students’ over-representation in Team GB was that private school inherently introduces and advances a competitive attitude.

Is it to produce olympians? Many of the gold medallists from the last sixteen days learned their trade on their school field. It is plausible that if we wish to improve our Olympic performances we need school sport to push the limits of our students’ sporting prowess.

I don’t think any of these are the answer. The point of school sport is, in the first instance, to give children something that they enjoy and can help them build self-esteem. I believe that keeping them fit is part and parcel of this.

We should forget trying to instill a competitive spirit where your own value is relative to the achievements of others. Let children derive their own self-worth in absolute terms, it’s much more sustainable.

Many have criticised the calls for compulsory sport to be reintroduced saying that school sport provided the most unhappy times of their childhood. Teenage girls have surfaced as the most at risk group in terms of dropping out of school sport with sweat being the primary complaint.

This shows that it’s all well and good forcing children to do sport but it can result in huge resentment and ultimately a backlash as soon as it ceases to become compulsory. To truly create a sporting legacy, we need not to force a generation to do sport but to capture the nation’s passion to help a generation to want to do sport and to gain something genuinely meaningful from it.

If the reason that people drop out of sport is because they don’t enjoy it, either on a physical or emotional level then I think that variety is the answer. Schools need to offer a range of sports both traditional and more contemporary (yes, that means Indian dance) that suit a range of builds and abilities.

The same teenage girls who drop out of sport age sixteen only to pick up zumba classes age twenty-one don’t do so because a passion for sport is switched off and then on again. It’s about being offered something you enjoy, whether it’s competitive or not.

There is, however, a second element to the solution, beyond just finding something you enjoy. For these sports to be continued beyond just the compulsory lessons, students must be able to derive self-worth from them in order to want to continue under their own volition.

The Olympics offers the opportunity for us to change our attitudes towards sport and the message should be one of respect for all disciplines. A fortnight glued to every one of London 2012’s competitions introduced the nation to the fact that the skill and fitness required of, say, a rhythmic gymnast is different from but equal to that of a footballer or a cyclist or a diver.

Schools should harness this momentum and curiosity by providing a range of sports and every pupil should be required to take part in the range. It is only through the pupils having an understanding and respect for the merits of sports which their peers choose to pursue that every sport can generate the same self-worth as that which results from the more traditional, and revered, sports.

I don’t think that participating in a range of sports will create a Jack of all trade, master of none scenario. Particularly if this range is introduced at primary school level, secondary school and after school clubs can then be the chance for more ‘specialisation’.

Whether it’s athletics or zumba and whether it becomes a livelihood or their weekly stress-relief, school sport provides an essential opportunity to build confidence in a generation. Team GB’s strong performance across a range of disciplines has opened our eyes to a range of sports and their merits.

I think that Cameron was misguided to devalue Indian dancing and that it is this attitude which I hope will soon be revealed as outmoded. We shouldn’t put students off a sport simply because it’s non-competitive. A new culture of mutual appreciation between sports and their participants could be hugely beneficial to the nation and result in mass participation in school sports across all ages and both genders.

Field of Dreams showed us that if you build it, he will come”. I think that London 2012 can teach us that if you respect it, they will play.

Dom also writes at www.domgilchrist.com.