Time off school – who benefits?

In a previous article for SPA “Whose Life is it Anyway?”, I questioned whether there was any such thing as ‘talent’, and what sacrifices have to be made to be ‘world class’ in anything.  Are the tens of thousands of hours of commitment to a single cause – often to the detriment of all else – worth it?
In this second article, I want to explore the attitudes of the consumers of that talent – the professional sports clubs and national associations, the orchestras, the theatre companies or whatever.  What do they demand?  Are their demands reasonable?

As Headmaster of a school full of youngsters hugely committed to ‘being the best I can be’, the conflicting demands of child, parent, school and professional organisation has become increasingly difficult to manage. I became used to budding actors keen to take up ‘the chance of a lifetime’ performing in the West End in a musical which required children.  Young musicians were invited to take part in tours by orchestras that would ‘aid their musical and personal development’ and improve their chances of a professional career.  And I became used to individuals asking for specific time off for sporting events and training camps.  A boy World Champion Trampolinist needed to defend his title, won in Australia, in South Africa.  Another was GB Karting champion and needed several Fridays to attend international weekend championships if he was to fulfil his dream of being the next Lewis Hamilton.  Another – who was a first round loser at Wimbledon this year – had several week-long training camps in Spain through his teenage years.

But others – such as Matt Smith (Dr Who), Loz Garrett (bassist with Jamie Cullum), David Willey (England cricketer), Courtney Lawes and Steve Thompson (England and British Lions Rugby) did not have any time off school that I recall. So what did I say and do, as a Head keen that boys achieve their personal heights? 

In every case, I would talk with the parents.  I would explain the potential pitfalls.  Everyone was an individual case.  A boy supremely talented academically, as well as sport-wise, could cope.  Another with less prospect of academic success had little to lose!  But the tricky ones were those who needed every last minute of schooling if they were to pass exams – exams that often would be needed if the hoped-for stellar career did not happen! I refused to be the ‘judge and jury’.  The parents and – more importantly – the child had to decide what was in their best interests.  I could only give advice.  And most took it.

But more recently the pressures from professional football club academies has become intense. Boys and their parents are being ‘signed-up’ at ridiculously early ages – 6/7 years old?  They are told – or it is certainly implied – that if they do not commit to the club for training and games, then a future career could be in jeopardy.

At my school the year I retired there were boys registered from ages 11-15 with a dozen different football academies.  Some were with our local club – Northampton Town – but others with clubs as distant as Aston Villa, Coventry, Nottingham Forest, Leicester and QPR. On reaching national soccer finals, we had boys as young as 13 ‘poached’ by more distant clubs – one in the East and one in the NorthWest – and offered places at independent boarding schools near the club if they would sign, not to mention other inducements to encourage commitment to that club.

What do you as parents do?  That is why Mel Eves’ Sports Parents Association is so timely.
Parents need help and advice from an independent source, from someone who has been there and done it, and knows the system from the inside.

What do you as coaches do?  I am sure that you think you are doing the best by the boys – and by your club.
And the SPA can help to establish what is best practice at academies, and what should be avoided!

But that is the topic of the third article: how I dealt with the more voracious clubs and the demands they made on my boys!


Sir Michael Griffiths

Education Consultant – SMG Education Limited
Former Head Teacher Board Member – Department for Education (DfE)
Former Council Member & President – Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)

Former Headteacher – Northampton School for Boys & Wallingford School