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Red letter days

Red-letter days were originally exactly what the phrase describes: those days inked in red on the calendars. There are surviving examples going back to Ancient Rome. Festivals, marking the progress of the year: high points to punctuate our lives; days that are special both in anticipation and when they finally arrive, because they are the days we come together.

The Platinum Jubilee, celebrated at the Junior School before half-term and today at the Senior School, is the perfect example. There are many valid political views about monarchy and the shape of society – there is plenty to divide us there. But there is also a simple and unifying truth. A remarkable female leader; a life of service, dedication and commitment; a vivid sense of community and fellowship. A shared moment: that punctuation mark in all our lives. However we spent the Jubilee, and whatever we think of the institution of monarchy, we were reminded of what we hold in common. We are at our best together.

As is the tradition with red-letter days, no sooner has one passed than we look to the next. From 20 June we host the first ever Reading Festival of Sport @The Abbey. Part of National School Sport Week, the Festival will be a wonderful celebration involving people from right across our community.

Commonwealth medallists will share their experiences. Boxing, powerlifting, diving, wheelchair basketball and much more will feature, with Abbey students and members of local clubs joining together.

As part of the celebrations The Abbey will host an exhibition straight from The Saatchi Gallery in London. “In Focus: Women’s Sport Through The Lens” is a remarkable collection of photographs charting iconic moments in women’s sport over 50 years. Brilliant trail-blazing female role models overcoming challenges and raising the profile of their sports and the achievement of women athletes in every field.

The theme of National School Sport Week is ‘belonging – a place in sport for every child’. This matters for all children and it matters especially in girls’ schools. A recent report from Women in Sport found 80% of girls feel they do not belong in sport and 90% of 13-16 girls do not complete the levels of weekly activity recommended for both physical and mental health. Over a third of girls in school report feeling they don’t have time for sport because of the amount of work they have to do.

Two recent experiences were a reminder of how much we stand to gain, if we can help as many young people as possible past the barriers that prevent participation. One was speaking to Ella in Lower IV about her sensational rowing success, including winning the J13 British Junior Indoor Rowing championship in December. In the end, she said, it is not about the training or the technique: it is about facing up, in the hardest moments, to how much you want to succeed. The opportunity to confront that truth, to test yourself in that way, is a rare gift, as is the dedication that leads up to it; both have benefits in every aspect of the way we live our lives. That is what a real and fierce commitment to sport offers.

The other experience was a recent netball tournament at school between current students, alumnae and staff as part of the Year 14 tea. Speaking as a participant in the event, I think it is safe to say not many of the players that day faced the same fierce triumph of will that Ella described. The intensity dial was just a fraction lower, perhaps… but what the day offered was an easy, golden camaraderie; freedom from cares and work; the sheer, joyous, silly, unadulterated fun of a ball, a hoop, running around (well, for some of us, ambling around) – in short, messing around.

What is so wonderful about school sport is that it offers both of these experiences, and everything in between. Air, movement, mental peace, friendship, silliness and fun. And the chance to go as far as every participant wants to travel down the path of dedication that leads to rare self-knowledge. That’s why learning to belong in sport matters so much, and why, in the end, everyone really does win.

As they say, it’s only a game – which is why it is so much more than that. Because if it’s only a game, we might as well play it. And play – playfulness of mind and playfulness of spirit – the ability to live lightly and unburdened and glad-hearted – these things matter. The tea party with the Queen and Paddington wasn’t a nice touch – it lay at the heart of what made the Jubilee special. That same playfulness and celebration of play is at the heart of the Festival of Sport. Events worth marking in red indeed.

Mr le Fleming

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