As a kid, there was little that got the blood stirring more than the anticipation of a sports tournament. It would start the night before: you would lay out your kit and dream up extravagant set-piece moves that never saw the light of day. We never won, but no matter. It really was the taking part that counted.
Imagine my delight when the local prep school invited all the local primary schools to take part in an under-7 football tournament. My eldest son loves football and, while he is no Lionel Messi, the thought of watching him in his first “proper” tournament stirred memories of my own dreams of glory.
As a teacher at the prep school, my wife prompted our son’s state school to organise a team to play on its magnificent pitches. There were to be no winners or trophies, just nigh-on 100 local kids enjoying fresh air, recreation and team spirit. Awesome.
How wrong we were. Apparently, any trip that involves pupils going off site requires a fully-fledged teacher to accompany them. So while the school saw this was a good opportunity, it told us that all the teachers were busy that day. Absolutely right, we thought, you should be busy teaching the children. No matter, several parents, already DBS-checked (presumably for this sort of eventuality), put themselves forward for the day.
But no. Volunteers are not qualified for this. We now find ourselves in a quandary. If we can’t persuade the school, or the local authority, to allow the team to be taken by willing volunteers, we may have to remove the children from the school for the afternoon, incurring several unauthorised absences and causing a headache for the headteacher. I believe that only four schools are to take part, from 15 invited.
I posed this dilemma to a colleague in another independent school who, it turned out, had seen a similar thing: in this case, four primary schools had been approached with the offer of free, after-school coaching with two Olympic sportspeople, and not one positive response had come back. I wonder if the parents had even been informed of the opportunity. If I was a parent with a child in one of those schools, I’d have been apopleptic.
This seems bang-your-head-on-the-table crazy. As an experienced teacher in private schools, I have seen what a positive impact sport can have on young children, yet as a parent of two in state education, I am flummoxed by the red tape that seems to be denying the chance for independent schools to offer the outreach so badly needed in a society increasingly polarised between the haves and the have-nots.
Of course I understand the need for watertight child protection and safeguarding. Yet if a DBS-checked, safeguarding-trained group of parents (one of them a teacher) with parental permission and a risk assessment can’t scoot a mile down the road with their five sons for a kick-around attended by St John’s Ambulance, I’m not sure the world hasn’t got just a little paranoid.
Mitigating risk is vital, and every person involved in education must understand that, as even one child falling through that safety net into physical danger or being exposed to predatory influences is a tragedy. However, an equal tragedy would be to sacrifice the chance for cross-sector collaboration and the wellbeing (and sheer fun) of young people on the altar of bureaucratic anxiety.
I don’t blame my son’s teachers, I think the school is great. But the machine needs fixing somehow. Independent schools are desperate to reach out (their future survival depends on it) and state schools should be biting their arms off to take these opportunities.
I am gutted my lad and his mates won’t be able to show off their double-dummy, rainbow-flick free-kick routine. But if it has exposed a flaw in the system that we can change for the better, then I’ll take that as a win.