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What Happened to the Honour of Selection?

by Neil Rollings

“The following have been selected to represent the School…”   These were the coveted words that brought pupils racing to the noticeboards, hoping to see their names listed.  To be one of the chosen few.  Upholding the school’s honour on the metaphorical battlefields against all rivals. 

There has been a subtle shift over the last decade amongst all but the youngest pupils.  The enthusiasm for selection is still in good health in pre-maturation sport, but is significantly eroded amongst adolescents.  Bestowing the honour of selection has been replaced in many schools with a hopeful request that pupils might agree to do the school a favour and take part.  Ideally, it would be the most athletic pupils.  However, when it comes down to it, any will do.  The focus on winning the game with a committed and carefully prepared team sometimes gives way to the hasty assembly of a team whose ambition is to avoid the call of shame, and simply “fulfil” the fixture. 

School sport has fewer teams than 10 years ago, and an epidemic of cancelled games.  The fixture lists of some lower ability senior teams could be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Outstanding Works of Fiction.  Long distance away games are especially vulnerable.  Mounting reluctance to get on the bus is developing into a sector trend.  The idea that it is an honour for which pupils compete is losing traction, and is unlikely to return.

Compulsion to play is history.  It was never a comfortable concept that pupils had to be forced to do something whose purpose was supposed to be pleasure.  Compulsion has to be replaced by culture.  Where it is cool to be in school teams, children want to play.  Where it isn’t, they take selfish decisions and are happy to battle the system to avoid anything inconvenient.  Parents are often sadly complicit in this.  But it isn’t inevitable.  Some schools maintain a buoyant culture of participation, with pupils dependable and committed.  These schools, however, are an endangered species.

Where will it end?  A process of rationalisation is quietly underway.  Schools are eventually coming to tire of the farcical sequence of making and publishing fixtures, scrabbling around for a team before accepting failure and launching the equally demanding cancellation mechanisms.  The number of teams is being revised downwards in almost all schools.  There are fewer Under 16 and Sixth Form teams than at any time in the last 50 years.  Schools with a strong culture who can still produce these teams suffer the almost weekly frustration of the opposition cancelling on them. 

Investment in school sport is at an all-time high.  Lavish facilities, specialist coaches, ambitious fixture lists all look great on paper.  Website claims are spectacular, describing impressive programmes and wide opportunities.  It’s a shame that this is often coinciding with a declining interest in being in the team.