by Chris Morgan
One of the aspects of my job that I truly love is the mutual comradeship between likeminded professionals.
When I first started as a coach/teacher and feeling like I had a point to prove, my competitive instincts meant that I would often look at the opposition member of staff on the touchline as the enemy or opposition whereas now, as an experienced teacher, I appreciate we are on the same side really, just trying to give our students the best sporting opportunities.
When talking with staff from other schools perhaps the most contentious issue, the area that causes the most ill feeling, is the concept of sports scholarships with all its nuances and vagaries.
It’s often cited as being ‘not fair’ when one school brings in several talented athletes into their sixth form. Yet too often other facts are conveniently ignored.
Do you consider the fact that you may have twice the number of students could be perceived as unfair? Is the fact that you have more contact time fair? Is the fact that you’re a boarding school and they are a day school fair? I’m not sure the ‘not fair’ argument holds up or is relevant. But what perhaps is an important consideration is the messaging associated with any scholarship programme.
Now let’s not beat around the bush. The money that Independent schools spend on sport is staggering. That expenditure creates a disparity in the opportunities, facilities and coaching provided between the state and independent sector (sadly).
That’s not to say that there aren’t those opportunities and examples of excellence within the state sector, but those examples are often carried out in the face of significant financial and bureaucratic constraints.
Given that we all want the best for every student and given the opportunities available in the private sector, why then does the concept of a sporting scholarship causes so much ill feeling? To my mind, the whole idea of scholarship, of providing opportunities for young men and women to access opportunities that the independent sector only provides is hugely admirable.
I wish more students could have access to the facilities, opportunities and level of coaching available. Sports scholarships are a way of ensuring widening access to a whole range of opportunities beyond the sports field. If that is truly the case, then what messages are we sending to young athletes through the messaging of our sports scholarship schemes?
It is my belief, supported by other director of sport I suspect, based on my trawl of many other schools’ websites, that the reasons we play sport hasn’t changed too much from back in the day, developing soft and hard skills, raising health and fitness and so forth. You’ve all heard or read it, I am sure.
Not many websites talk about sport at school being based around winning games at first team level, although I do hear schools discuss athletic recruitment and the success of some of their teams being “part of their business model.”
I remain unconvinced by the wisdom and rationale for such models. Alongside championing the inherent moral value of sport, I think you’ll find most schools chuck in the nebulous phrase ‘sport for all’ on their website, an admirable concept with which I wholeheartedly agree.
If I am correct in assuming that these core values are still the pillars of most sporting programmes then isn’t it then vital that the message our scholarship programme sends fits in with these values?
Some ways we can hold ourselves to account are by asking some fundamental questions. Are the scholarships spread amongst the sports or are they concentrated in some? Do scholars get subsidised places on the back of their ability and not means? How does the non-scholarship student who has worked his way up the teams throughout his school career to get into the first team feel when he’s displaced by someone from another school and he is deemed not good enough?
Answering these questions may stop us facing the usual accusations about the delivery of sport in our schools. I would be a rich man if I had a fiver for every time, I’ve heard people say “their sport isn’t as good as it used to be,” when what they actually mean is their 1st XV have had poor results that season.
Similarly, if we can look the parent who has paid full fees throughout their child’s time at school because of our handling of scholarships, we should be able to answer confidently when we are asked: ‘What happened to sport for all?’
As is often the case with schools, perhaps what is key is the messaging about scholarships and the practical acting out of those messages and that it is fair – whatever fair is.
Chris Morgan is director of sport at Tonbridge School in Kent
Standing up for sports scholarships