OPINION: A fairy tale ending for sport - former headteacher Dennis Richards

It was the best of times and the worst of times,.. and so on. The opening lines of Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities capture perfectly the Zeitgeist, the spirit of our times.

By Gemma Jimmison
Thursday, 4th August 2022, 11:10 am
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01: Millie Bright and Rachel Daly of England pose for a photo with the UEFA Womenâ€TMs EURO 2022 Trophy during the England Women's Team Celebration at Trafalgar Square on August 01, 2022 in London, England. The England Women's Football team beat Germany 2-1 in the Final of The UEFA European Women's Championship last night at Wembley Stadium.  (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01: Millie Bright and Rachel Daly of England pose for a photo with the UEFA Womenâ€TMs EURO 2022 Trophy during the England Women's Team Celebration at Trafalgar Square on August 01, 2022 in London, England. The England Women's Football team beat Germany 2-1 in the Final of The UEFA European Women's Championship last night at Wembley Stadium. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Sport has been the catalyst for the former. The best of times. The Commonwealth Games are in full swing, putting the spotlight on Birmingham and highlighting sport’s crucial role in equality issues. Gay rights, anti-racism, gender and sport for the differently abled. Sometimes derisively referred to as “woke”, but now a juggernaut, partly created by international sport, which is henceforth unstoppable.

My favourite is wheelchair rugby league. Brave, no holds barred, full on and exciting all at once. The big news about this year’s Tour de France has been the Women’s Tour, which started on the fabulous Champs Elysees circuit in Paris on the same day as the men’s race finished. It has quickly developed, not into a separate race, but a continuation of the one and only Tour de France.

And so to Rachel Daly. I have never had the privilege of meeting her, but like everybody else in Harrogate, I know of her England soccer success. The three elements in her soccer success story are familiar ones. A glowing tribute to her self-sacrificing parents, the modesty of her coaches at Killinghall Nomads and, also gratitude to her teachers at Saltergate School and recently-retired teacher Mike Sweetman at Rossett School.

The speed of change is barely credible. 15,000 watched the Women’s Euro Final in 2009; in 2022 it was a full house at Wembley. Two questions remain. Women’s football has not been corrupted by money or mired in misconduct accusations and a toxic fan culture. Long may it remain so. And will it? For the moment a fairy tale ending and the best of times.

Second question. What are the schools doing about all this? I guess, post pandemic, it might be described as the worst of times. As yet, only 44 per cent of secondary schools offer equal football coaching to both boys and girls. And now it is depressing beyond words that both Prime Ministerial candidates are talking about bringing back secondary modern schools. They call it more grammar schools. We settled that question in 1968. It’s yesterday’s debate.

Academic selection at 11 was abolished in Harrogate in 1973. Comprehensive schools and grammar Schools cannot co-exist. By definition. Research has repeatedly shown that parents support grammar schools, until they discover that their own children won’t be going to one. Or even worse, one of them is, and their sibling is not. And since 75 per cent of children will not be going to a grammar school, having failed an exam at 11, politically it should be a dead duck.

It is undeniable that grammar schools can provide a route to success for a minority. However, Richard Sheriff, chief executive of Harrogate’s highly successful Red Kite Trust, and a leading figure in education nationally, told me this week: “Selecting children at the age of 11 is often cruel, divisive and emotionally devastating. The solution is to fund all schools well, ensure all have access to great teachers and a robust accountability system.” In any event, comprehensive schools all use academic selection techniques, usually called “setting”.

There is no dumbing down. “Levelling up”. Now that’s a novel idea. Let’s go for that. It’ll cost, mind you.

Meanwhile, warm congratulations to Harrogate International Festivals. A brilliant series of events. That middle word is important for a tourist town.

Final word, therefore, to our very own Tewit Youth Band, currently on tour in Italy in Montecatini Terme, twin town of Harrogate since 1963. Supported by Harrogate International Partnerships. The best of times.