Whatever the difficulties and frustrations of school sport in the twenty first century, one thing is for sure. The shop window is in amazing condition. The top level of games in schools has never been of a higher standard. The time, effort and investment in developing the best players is more extensive than ever before in the history of school sport.
The results are astonishing. The best school games are of unprecedented quality. Dedicated athletes are fitter, more skilful and better coached than ever: resources are at an all-time high. Much of the considerable investment in sport of recent years has benefited the leading players, especially of team games. Specialist coaches - many without the distraction of any significant teaching role - fitness facilities, equipment and expertise, analysis software and nutrition: all contribute to an unprecedented level of performance support. The culture of most schools encourages, supports and recognises these efforts. School websites are not slow or shy in celebrating top sports successes.
There has always been a gladiatorial quality to the top level of school sport. The legacy of the Victorian Age of Athleticism is alive, well and clearly visible in most schools. This is augmented by a mature industry of sports awards and scholarships - operating on either side of ethical boundaries - which ensures that the most athletic pupils are gathered together into a small number of uber sports schools. Whatever unintended consequences may accompany this, it certainly impacts positively on performance. This tier of schools produces a previously unimagined quality of play.
The matches between the top teams, and at the sharp end of national competitions, can be truly breathtaking. Played on facilities which could – and often do – host professional sport, in front of crowds similar to those for national leagues, these contests are often of exceptional quality. Extensive publicity surrounds the results, and the currency of national finals and trophies is undisputed. The officiating is not always of the standard which the players deserve, haunted by limited thinking – that it’s “just” school sport. It is top quality sport – that is being played in schools.
It’s not just in the UK. Ambition for high performance in school sport has comfortably transported itself into Commonwealth countries, and is now being enthusiastically embraced by the new tier of British style franchise and international schools in the middle and far east.
None of this is achieved without controversy. Often envy, bitterness and resentment can dilute appreciation of what the best teams achieve. Reservations regarding unintended consequences are not always without foundation. Appreciation of the sheer effort, dedication and commitment required to achieve these standards is often unforthcoming. Performance and participation are not mutually exclusive. The best schools combine high performance with wide participation, extensive variety and a vibrant culture of health and fitness.
However, sometimes it is necessary to put reservations aside and replace them with the admiration which is always due to something done fantastically well. So, spare a moment to watch some of the top games. And marvel at what school sport can achieve at its best. Sometimes, it is truly remarkable.