Roy Blatchford reflects on the importance of physical education and teachers who inspire the young
In common with millions of sports fans around the world my December/January television viewing has centred on Australia. While the northern hemisphere has been chilled and battered by blizzards, the good folk of Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne have enjoyed (and endured) sizzling heat and gripping sport.
Courtesy of global TV networks I have been able to watch the greatest test cricket batsman in the world Steve Smith and the top tennis players of the current era, Roger Federer and Caroline Wozniacki. They have not disappointed.
With the arrival of February has come the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Quite apart from the ice-fire pageantry and political symbolism of the opening ceremony where North and South Korea shared a flag, we have been treated to some take-your-breath-away sporting moments. My mind turns to the indomitable skier Lindsey Vonn, to the flying snowboarder Shaun White, to the sublime Canadian ice-dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Citius, Altius, Fortius in action.
Whenever I watch the world’s top sportswomen and men at work, the teacher in me always wonders how they got started, and who inspired them. And my mind often turns to one particular individual whom I had the good fortune to come across in my early twenties.
Fred Newton was a quiet, small, modest man. He left a giant sporting legacy in the shape of thousands of boys who played school, district, county, national and international football.
I met Fred when I started teaching at a south London comprehensive in 1973. He was in his seventies then and the pupils affectionately called him ‘head of thieving’. He had the uncanny knack of discovering who had taken something from a changing room, and quietly returning the stolen goods to their rightful owner. No fuss. A maths teacher by trade, his entire career in the one school, by the time I knew him he was the school’s counsellor and social worker.
He introduced me to Saturday morning football, from Clapham Common and Hackney Marshes to the depths of Ewell and Morden, then Inner London Education Authority playing fields. From the immediate post-war years to the late 1970s, Fred took teams, coached and spotted talent. Generations of boys came under his amateur, expert eye. He believed passionately in sport for all, excellence for some, elite competition for a tiny number.
Over school lunches in the noisy dining-hall of the time, I recall conversations with Fred about sport and physical exercise in general. I loved listening to his reminiscences as I first learned my trade.
We were of a mind that from the first days of a child walking and running, children should be having fun through basic exercise: in the garden, in the park, on the beach.
We shared the view that at primary school enjoyment in keeping healthy, exercise and recreation should be harnessed by teachers through team games, dance, gymnastics and swimming. Cooperation, collaboration and competition should walk hand-in-hand: sport and physical education for all.
The path of course continues for all children into secondary, supported by parents and teachers. For some youngsters, innate talent in some aspect of sport may emerge. The Fred Newtons of this world will spot and nurture that talent. These boys and girls will win races when pitched against their friends, they will excel in dance, skating, judo, rugby or hockey relative to their peers. A handful of them will be talent spotted and find themselves at local clubs, perhaps competing at regional and county finals.
A very tiny minority will join elite squads in their older teenage years and, just maybe, an even smaller number will be selected to represent their country and enter professional sport. The whole process is Darwinian pure and simple: the flourishing of the fittest, the most skilful and the most dedicated.
Children, parents, teachers and club coaches each play their vital part. They always have done and they always will. Opportunity, encouragement, enjoyment and purposeful practice – all are vital. That way lie lifelong involvement and fun in exercise, fitness and sport.
In common with countless teachers down the years, Fred left a special legacy. As I have watched great sporting achievements on TV this past few months, I have thought about teachers who have devoted their time to help children and young people become those who stand tall in international sport.
The joy that sport brings to people throughout life is so often rooted in their experiences in school. In common with thriving arts and music, the presence and promotion of physical education and sport lie at the heart of good schooling – and a life well lived.
Roy Blatchford CBE is founding director of the National Education Trust, and is currently working on education system reform in the Middle East. His new collection of essays ‘Success Is A Journey’ will be published by John Catt later in the year.
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