August 25, 2004

Cheek by Jowell

My local football team are Dulwich Hamlet. Last season I went to see them play maybe four or five times at their home ground. One of these games took place just before Xmas, and sitting in the clubhouse after the match, watching the results come in on the TV, I could hear, from the other end of the bar, a great deal of excitement and commotion occasioned by the draw for the Supporters' Club Annual Raffle. Not having a ticket, I took no particular notice - until several days later, when I found out from the newspaper that the winner had actually been none other than Tessa Jowell, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, and Minister for Condemning Satirical TV Programmes Without Having Seen Them First.

She wasn't actually present, which was just as well, given the minor danger of the drink talking and instructing me to tell her to her vacuous face exactly what I thought of her. I hadn't previously thought of her as a Dulwich fan, although I suppose there would be nothing inconsistent in first attacking Chris Morris without having seen his programme, and then supporting Dulwich Hamlet without having seen them play. No doubt she often attends home matches - just not on the few occasions I have been there - and it must therefore be her experiences of Champion Hill that have persuaded her that sporting competition is such a good thing. Which would be a curious conclusion to draw from watching Dulwich Hamlet, who rarely show any signs of benefitting from sporting competition.

Tessa's big idea of the day is to force schools to make competitive sports compulsory. (I say idea. It's actually unlikely that Tessa ever has anything quite so intellectually distinctive as an idea. It's for this reason that it's so hard to distinguish her from the similarly emptyheaded Harriet Harman. At least Patricia Hewitt stands out from the faceless Blairite crowd for her sheer arrogance and ambition.) Needless to say she is unable to do this without identifying herself with the notion that somehow schools are dominated by trendy teachers set on preventing their charges from engaging in competitive games for no better reason than political dogma, and naturally in this context one invokes "political correctness" as certainly as if one were obliged to do so by contract:

We have got to move beyond the politically correct nonsense of the 80s that competition damages children and sports days are undesirable. You only have to look at what young children do in the playground to see that they thrive on competition.

It is occasionally a struggle to think of a comment from a Government Minister that could not have been made by Richard Littlejohn, and this ain't the one. And it makes no more sense than that qualification would suggest. Look at what young children do in the playground. Well, if I do that I will sometimes see boys, or mostly boys, kicking a ball about and having fun. I will also see other boys and girls absenting themselves from the game because they don't enjoy it, or want to do something they enjoy more, or because nobody wants to have them on their team on account of their size or their age or their lack of skill or because they are the class scapegoat. I will also see children being picked on, children being bullied, children called names, children fighting. What would happen if we actually wanted children to take their values from their experiences in the playground?

The code of the schoolyard, Marge! The rules that teach a boy to be a man. Let's see. Don't tattle. Always make fun of those different from you. Never say anything unless you're sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do.
On second thoughts, you can see how this might appeal to a New Labour toady.

Tessa continued:

What competing in sport in childhood does is to teach children how to win and lose - which is not only good for them when they're at school but stands them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

This is tosh, and I say so as somebody who enjoyed school sport and occasionally did well at it. What teaches you about winning and losing in real life is real life. The lessons that sport teaches you are about sport. When I played sport at school, I learned lessons like these:

  • Keep your eye on the ball when you're trying to take a catch
  • Don't set off too quickly in a long-distance race
  • Try and pass to a teammate who's running into space
  • Develop your pieces and get your king into safety.

I learned lessons like these, and nothing of greater philosophical or practical import - and I was an enthusiastic pupil more than willing to learn. In fact the whole idea that the lessons imparted by the struggle to succeed at games is contradicted by the reality that those who learn those lessons best, those who excel at sport and become international and world-class performers, very often become dysfunctional human beings as a result. From whom should we really take our lessons in how to live? Bobby Fischer? Geoffrey Boycott? Diego Maradona?

Many people find school sport a humiliating and valueless experience which has the potential to make them shudder decades after it is over and done. This is the genuine, rational, practical reason why many teachers turned away from the idea of compulsory competitive sport. It is because they considered they were there to nurture the children in their care, not to humiliate them.

In truth it doesn't have a great deal to do with the welfare of schoolchildren. It is the middle of the Olympics, and there are national flags to fly and a potentially lucrative 2012 Olympic bid to promote. There is something deeply troubling in the way in which the rights and wrongs of school sports are discussed in connection with the nation's success or failure in international sporting competition. Should that really be the goal to which the health and happiness of children should be subordinated? Andy Burnham, a backbencher who wants competitive school sport to be compulsory, clearly thinks so:

We can't celebrate an Olympic gold and yet agonise over whether competitive school sport is right or not. School sport cannot be about egg and spoon races with prizes for everyone.

All shall not have prizes. We must create millions of young losers so that a very small number of adults shall be winners. And sport, which I have enjoyed for more than thirty years, becomes a curse, a punishment, becomes something to be inflicted on people whether they like it or not.


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