Pushy parents in the school egg-and-spoon race seem absurd  

TOM UTLEY: Pushy parents in the school egg-and-spoon race seem absurd. But my heart burst with pride when our boys did well

A friend reports that his wife became increasingly uncomfortable when she spotted a creepy-looking man, with a Bobby Charlton comb-over and a long-lens camera, taking pictures of the children on sports day at their six-year-old daughter’s school.

So concerned was she that she set off to alert the headmistress. But when she found her busy handing out prizes, she had a quiet word with the deputy head instead.

As it turned out, it was something of a blessing that the head was otherwise occupied. This was because her deputy informed my friend’s wife that the revoltingly sinister paedophile suspect in question was actually … the headmistress’s husband! (For the record, he was there for unimpeachable reasons, having been roped in by his wife to act as the official photographer for the occasion). Blushes and laughter all round.

Parents of pupils have approached a school with recordings made on electronic devices to prove their child finished in a higher position. Our stock picture shows a school sports day

Ah, but this was many years ago. These days, it seems, any dodgy characters seen filming children’s sports days are more likely to be competitive parents, collecting video evidence with which to challenge a teacher’s decision if they feel their precious darlings have been robbed of their rightful places on the victors’ podium.


Such, anyway, has been the experience of Sian Evans, headteacher at Mynydd Bychan, a Welsh-language primary school in Cathays, Cardiff. Exasperated by parents’ conduct on sports days, she has written to all 200 of them, insisting: ‘The teacher’s word is final.’

In a firm-but-fair letter, she writes: ‘The members of staff at the finish line, and nobody else, have the absolute final say as to the first, second and third positions.

‘Unfortunately, during the past few years, parents have approached members of staff with evidence that they had filmed on electronic devices such as iPads, in order to prove that their child should have been awarded a higher position in a particular race, and comments have also appeared on Facebook.’

I must say my first reaction when I started reading yesterday’s story was to chuckle at the absurdity of pushy parents who take primary school sports days so seriously. I certainly didn’t when our four boys were growing up.

Indeed, I wouldn’t have dreamed of demanding a stewards’ inquiry into the result of a race — though I confess I might have muttered about it under my breath if I’d felt that any son of mine had been hard done by. (I should also mention that it filled me with ridiculous pleasure when our boys did well in the sack race or the egg-and-spoon.)

But when I read on, I fear Mrs Evans began to lose much of my sympathy.

‘If this happens again,’ she wrote, ‘there is a strong possibility that we will have to consider changing the competitive nature of our sports morning.’

In other words, she appeared to be saying that if parents went on displaying such unseemly competitive instincts, she would be forced to stop their children from competing with each other.

Well, I suppose this is not quite as depressing as the more familiar, moth-eaten theory of the education Establishment that competition of any sort is bad, since it undermines losers’ self-esteem.

Such is the all-must-have-prizes mentality that has stripped the country of most of its grammar schools — the jewels in the crown of the state sector — while dumbing down exams and condemning thousands of students to the misery of wasting their best years (and accumulating vast debts) attending fatuous university courses for which they are hopelessly unsuited.

Yes, I have huge sympathy with the teenagers reduced to tears by this summer’s more rigorous GCSEs and A-levels, introduced by former education secretary Michael Gove in his bid to restore standards and inject some meaning into exam grades.

But in the long run, it must surely be kinder to students — not to mention employers — to stop giving a misleading impression of their aptitudes.


As I say, however, Mrs Evans cannot be found guilty of opposing competitive sports for misguided ideological reasons. But I still believe she will be doing her young pupils a huge disservice if she carries out her threat to introduce non-competitive sports days (heaven knows how that would work) unless their parents mend their ways.

If you ask me, this would be a crime against human nature itself. For the fact is that homo sapiens is a highly competitive species, with the will to outdo others programmed into our DNA.

True, this can have extremely unfortunate consequences (centuries of warfare spring to mind). But it can also be credited with every advance made by mankind, in every field from science, engineering, agriculture and medicine to the arts.

Meanwhile, I can think of few more harmless ways of satisfying this instinct — while promoting good health and combating obesity into the bargain — than allowing children to compete on the sports field.

Nor do I believe the losers suffer (and I write as the former child athlete almost invariably knocked out in the first heat, and the footballer kept waiting until last to be picked by the captain who had drawn the short straw). In my experience, children can be rather more philosophical about the unfairness of life than their pushy parents, let alone the hand-wringing education Establishment.

I well remember a school sports day 20 years ago, when I’d gone to watch our then 12-year-old put through his paces. With my adult sense of the unfairness of pitting boys at very different stages of development against each other, just because they happened to be roughly the same age, I recorded at the time:

‘It would take an artist of Thelwell’s calibre to do justice to the line-up at the start of some of the races. In lane one would be a plump little blond-haired lad in baggy shorts — and there in lane two, towering over him, a magnificent long-legged black athlete, built like Carl Lewis and dressed in professional running gear. Then, in lane three, a gangling boy, all knobbly knees, bony arms and flapping shorts, and in lane four, a great lump of a lad with his tummy spilling out of his T-shirt.’


But the young competitors didn’t seem to mind a bit that the results of most of the events were foregone conclusions.

‘Every one of them put everything he had into each race, from the gazelles with the school record in their sights to the baby hippopotamuses who looked as if they could barely waddle to the tuck shop.’

Most moving of all was the under-14 1,500 metres, in which the little fat boy trailing last (not my son, I hasten to say) still had a whole circuit of the track to complete when everyone else had crossed the finishing line. Far from giving up, he kept going until he had completed his lonely lap, panting and growing redder in the face with every stride.

As I wrote in my contemporaneous account: ‘When at last he crossed the finishing line, a great cheer went up from the other boys — not sarcastic, but a good-natured tribute to a boy who had suffered and done his best. The loser’s bright red face lit up in a victor’s grin, and he punched the air with his fist.’

But I’d be lying if I said this was the race that has stuck most vividly in my mind from that day. No, the title for that must go to the relay in which our boy was running last for his house, which was trailing miles behind the rest of the field when the baton was finally thrust into his hand.

After putting in a performance worthy of Usain Bolt, closing the gap with every stride, he breasted the tape in a heroic, magnificent … second place!

But it’s not this that I recall so much as the frenzy of back-slapping and high-fiving from his team-mates, and a child’s voice ringing out: ‘Well run, Utley!’ My heart fair burst with paternal pride.

So, please, Mrs Evans of Mynydd Bychan primary school, I understand your annoyance over parents who try to appoint themselves Video Assistant Referees. But don’t deprive your charges of the chance to learn the two most important lessons in life: how to win — and how to lose.


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