Consultant agronomist, Gordon Jaaback, asks what value are modern well-equipped schools if outdoor sports facilities are neglected?
Only on the sportsfield can children experience a microcosm of life - learning to succeed, to fail, to win, to lose and, above all, to respect one another.
The Olympics are just around the corner; there is much hype on the need to nurture sport at school and, yet, there is not the interest and/or budget to provide the facilities in a good playing condition when we need them most.
Football is played around the globe. It can be fun on virtually any surface, provided it is dry and relatively even, though grass cover is the ideal surface - especially at the higher levels. Here in Britain football is essentially a winter sport and wet cool conditions prevail throughout the winter months. Topsoil is generally clay in texture and becomes waterlogged and slippery when saturated. Without proper attention to drainage and maintenance deterioration is inevitable. The surface seals up, depressions fill with water, the soil softens, there is nowhere for the water to go and so a quagmire develops.
The long and the short of the matter is the fact that top soils are almost entirely impermeable clay loam soils that just get wetter and wetter with virtually no evaporation through from November to March. Surface water must be drained away quickly before it has time to soften the hard surface. In dry conditions clay soils are firm and support good grass growth. The topsoil can be replaced with a porous sandy medium that in turn needs irrigation to get through the hot summer months - but only the premier clubs can afford this investment.
The only practical solution is to promote rapid run-off and enable water to by-pass the surface clay medium and collect in narrow close-spaced slit drains that hold and seep this water into piped lateral drains that remove it from the playing surface. A number of methods are currently employed including injected and excavated slits back-filled with stone and sand or sand alone. Synthetic plastic extrusions sealed with geotextiles are also used.
Today, technology has developed maintenance practices that can ensure sound conditions during the wet winter months. Naturally, the attainable can only be achieved at a cost. These methods have been widely published and are well known. It all comes back to what price we are prepared to pay to provide and maintain sports pitches which are, in fact, the lifeblood for developing children. This is where a strange anomaly appears - why do the attitudes of the British and the Americans differ so much in this context?
The troubling apathy
In the US all schools and college sports facilities are maintained to high standards, yet somehow, in Britain, there is virtually no concern over the playing conditions. In fact, authorities and people generally, are not concerned with weedy lawns, parks, parking areas, pathways and open spaces - let alone the condition of sports pitches. This disregard extends to the attitude to litter. The budget just does not incorporate these costs and there is little interest among local authorities in understanding the predicament and budgeting accordingly.
Authorities just do not seem to grasp the fact that neglected sports pitches are the beginning of a chain reaction. Waterlogged pitches become despised and produce slovenly play. Children lose respect for the game, for one another and all around them. Pitches are abandoned during the wet months and provide little opportunity for any controlled sporting endeavour. The resulting attitude of children is also reflected in their attire, attitude to adults and their approach to life. Without a satisfactory outlet for this energy they resort to activities that give them kicks.
Can we blame the children?
We are seeing a wide divide in children that are not privileged enough to attend private schools where the whole approach is completely different. At these schools proper effort is made to maintain good playing conditions. Sport is held in high regard. Children spend 10 to 20 hours a week on the sports ground. Their respect for each other and all around them shows in their conduct and attitude. They are fortunate to learn the true value of sport and benefit from all that good competition with one another can bring. This attitude to one another and their elders is apparent and they achieve more at school.
On the face of it the lack of funds seems to be at the root of the problem - with adequate finance so much can be achieved. But it is not solely that. Children in rural communities where they are encouraged to develop their own activities, or they have parents with an interest in sport, seem so different. Somehow, authorities seem to have got their priorities out of kilter. Children must expend their daily energy. Every encouragement, together with adequate facilities, must be there if we are to keep children off the streets. Are not physical well-being and attitude to one another and elders of more importance up to the age of 12 than the injection of knowledge? With a sound attitude to life, and those around them, there are enough years ahead to cram in the knowledge they will need later on.
The solution is not a simple matter. We have just got to stop and take stock. What value are modern well-equipped schools if outdoor sports facilities are neglected? How do we expect young children to use up the energy they generate daily? As we ponder on the future it is now, surely, a time to consider what is at the bottom of it all. Homes must produce the correct background and authorities have to realise that young children have bags of energy that must be used up productively if the more sinister attitudes are to be quelled from the start. Parents and authorities have to search out pastimes and endeavours that are of true benefit in the up-bringing of children and, above all, make the maintenance of them a much higher priority than they are at present.
Gordon Jaaback BSc Agric
Consulting Agronomist & Project Manager
Tel: (44) 1732 350351