It’s long been a popular myth that competitive sport in schools was on the decline.
Anecdotal evidence and loose talk on TV and radio suggested that fewer pupils and teams were taking part in competitions and inter-school sport than ever before.
But the latest research from some of the country’s leading national governing bodies for sport kicks any such thoughts into touch.
Far from being on the wane, competitive sport seems to be thriving all over the country, despite logistical issues and pressures on teachers.
Talk to those in charge of major sports such as athletics, tennis, swimming and table tennis and numbers are, at the very least, holding steady, and in many cases on the rise.
Athletics is, without doubt, one of the most complicated sports to organise, especially at schools’ level.
But thanks to the incredible work of the volunteers of the English Schools Athletic Association (ESAA), numbers are thriving in their annual track and field competitions.
In any year approximately 800 schools enter the Track & Field Schools' Cup from a pot of around 1200 different schools who have entered over the past 15 years.
“This means 2400 teams from the 800 schools,” explained Paul Ponton, joint coordinator of the Track & Field Cup. “Entry levels have remained consistent within 5% up or down and the 2012 Olympics had no effect whatsoever.
“The only significant change is that we have more schools entering from the south as numbers in the north gradually decrease.”
Cross country participation remains particularly buoyant, according to Geoff Williams, the ESAA’s cross country final coordinator.
He explained: “The competition usually attracts an annual entry of around 1500 teams from more than 500 schools and there has been a noticeable increase of entries from the independent school sector over the last ten years.
“But the competition is well supported from schools from almost every English county and there does not appear to be any significant regional bias to entries.”
Another sport that is thriving at grass roots levels is table tennis, thanks mainly to the tremendous organisation of English Schools’ county secretaries backed by Table Tennis England.
John Arnold, former president of the English Schools’ Table Tennis Association, said: “We only deal with winning’ schools or winning’ individuals from the counties so I can therefore only comment about entry at national level but this must surely reflect what is happening in the counties.
“The maximum entry would be 400 teams but our entry has risen from 187 in 2009 to an average of 240-250 in the last few years.
“Unfortunately, we do have several ‘dead’ counties but with the new support from Table Tennis England, it is hoped this will be addressed over the next few years.”
Swimming remains a stalwart of the competitive sports calendar in schools with the number of teams entering the ESSA’s national championships rising from 1,920 in 2014 to 2,307 in 2018 – 363 schools in total.
And at the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), one of their flagship tournaments – the year 7&8 and 9&10 national competitions, has seen team numbers rise from 2,584 in 2013/14 to 2,663 in 2017/18.
And competition coordinator Charlotte Mills says: “We’re hoping to hit 2750 this year with 46% girls’ teams entered meaning it’s our best product in terms of having a nearly 50/50 ratio of boys and girls playing.
“One of our winners last year was Exmouth Community College, who proved that as a state school it is still possible to get involved in these events.”
Tennis’ national U18 schools’ championships has seen a drop in participation from 288 in 2013/14 to 235 in 2017/18.
“But we think this is due to the range of ages and the amount of commitments pupils have throughout the summer in school,” adds Charlotte. “It is also for the better teams in the country and so year on year it can vary depending on the players that come through.”
One sport that has suffered a significant drop in numbers to their main national team competition is badminton – but there are extenuating circumstances.
Until this season, the sport relied on the network of school games organisers to run the grass roots part of the event before Badminton England took over for the latter stages.
Programme manager Jenna Tiley explained: “Entry previously averaged around 35,000 young people and about 1500 schools.
“Now we run it ourselves with school entry directly through our online entry system. Schools are required to pay an entry fee per team. This has meant a significant reduction this year in the number of schools entering which we were prepared for.
“It has not been without its challenges and we have learnt a lot. We are currently working through how we move the competition forward for 2019/20.”
Perhaps unusually, one sport that has seen a drop in numbers is rugby union with fewer schools entering the RFU’s national U18 and U15 competitions with numbers down from 457 and 575 in 2013/14 to 346 and 423 this season.
The situation was exacerbated two years ago when the RFU decided to outlaw knockout competitions at U13 level, thus bringing to an end the popular Schools Sport Magazine National Schools U13 Cup which had seen entry levels increasing year on year.
It’s an issue that the RFU are aware of, especially since introducing extra ability tiers into the system three years ago doesn’t appear to have bucked the trend.
Steve Grainger, the RFU’s director of rugby development, said: “We are working with schools to look at what would work best for them.
“We have more secondary schools than ever before playing the game but recognise that many are looking for more local and relevant competitive opportunities as they may be limited by factors such as how far they can travel to games.”
Who said competitive sport was on the wane?