Guardian Leader - School sports: Our children's sporting dreams betrayed

Posted: Sun, 08 Jul 2012 22:12

Today on the day that Andy Murray didn't quite live up to the nation's expectations the Guardian used its Leader Column to ask a deeper question about school sport policy. It is an issue deep in the heart for those of us at the Think Tank. When I was working in DCMS in the late 90s I was acutely aware that the department could only have a marginal impact on sport and physical activity if we still had really poor provision of PE & Sport in our state schools. I was there when the SSPs were promoted and developed. We aer not here to say they were perfect as we will be evidence based here at the Think Tank. But we have now lost that infrastructure and replaced it with a 'School Games' based on little more than a panic reaction to the £168m cuts. Nobody seriously in the sector sees them as a replacement.

But we are not here to play a blame game. Our job and that of the sector is to set you what we believe a policy aims to set out to achieve and then how to design a system that will gain a political consensus to deliver that vision.

So here is the Guardian Leader and then it we want to open up the debate and if we can secure funding to produce a report which sets out the way forward.

Today, Andy Murray becomes the first Briton to walk out on the Centre Court at Wimbledon to compete in a men's singles final since Bunny Austin in 1938. Whether or not he goes the same way as Austin did all those years ago (he lost – in straight sets to the American Don Budge) it will be a truly great moment for British sport.

In three weeks' time London will stage the Olympic Games for the first time since 1948. The preparations have gone well and the world's greatest athletes are about to arrive in our capital from every corner of the globe. The next few weeks will, as David Cameron said in a speech last week, be "simply amazing" for sport in Britain.

Politicians miss few chances to associate themselves with sporting successes, and Cameron is no different. He rushed out a statement within minutes of Murray's triumph on Friday evening, congratulating him and saying he would be there on Centre Court to cheer him on. That is all well and good. The prime minister was right in his speech last week to stress that "sport can change lives".

Stars at the Olympics, like those at Wimbledon, can inspire young people to develop their own talents and build their own self-respect, whether they are brilliant or just run-of-the-mill at the games they learn to love. Team sports help bind people and communities together. Sport brings young people out of themselves, away from computer and television screens. It makes them healthy and motivated. A British Wimbledon finalist – champion perhaps? – and British Olympic medallists will be wonderful role models for our young.

But we should not let this country's political leaders – particularly the current ones – take even the smallest slice of credit for the state of sport in our society just because Andy Murray has done well at Wimbledon or because Mark Cavendish or Rebecca Adlington might end up with gold medals round their necks. In a politically careless section of the same speech, Cameron highlighted the scandalous way in which school sport in this country lets down all but a small privately educated elite, and the very rare state-educated jewels such as Murray or Adlington who succeed despite state school provision, rather than because of it.

The prime minister asked why it was "that in so many schools sport has been squeezed out and facilities run down?" In the next sentence he went on to say: "The result is that independent schools produce more than their fair share of medal winners… and too many children think taking part just isn't for them."

Indeed they do. Colin Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association, told this newspaper last year that it was "unacceptable" that at the last Olympics, in Beijing in 2008, 50% of British medal winners came from private schools, despite the fact that the independent sector accounts for only 7% of pupils. The ratio this time is unlikely to be hugely different. Just as privately educated pupils go on to dominate top positions in our politics, our media and our professions, so they dominate much of our sport – a phenomenon the education secretary Michael Gove described recently as "morally indefensible".

So what has Cameron's government done to narrow the class divide in our sporting provision? Having built his leadership of the Tory party around the idea of a "big society", did Cameron think of boosting sport in schools and communities to help make sense of that mission? Did he make sport more central to school and community life and mobilise the millions of big society volunteers, those parents and sports lovers who adore running teams and clubs, in a national, linked-up sporting effort, connecting clubs to schools and schools to clubs? Did he insist that private schools do more to share their luscious playing fields and flash sports centres with state schools, which often have none, in return for earning their tax perk of charitable status? No. Not a bit of it.

One of the first acts of his government saw Michael Gove withdraw the entire budget of £160m a year in funding for school sports partnerships, a network created by Labour under which state schools shared sports and PE teachers and co-ordinated activity to ensure that all pupils had decent minimum levels of expert sporting tuition. If a primary school had no PE teachers, they would be lent one.

The partnerships were working well in most areas, and would have allowed the country to boast a real legacy from the Olympics after decades which saw school playing fields sold off. But Gove thought the partnerships were about state control and bureaucracy. He was suspicious because they were set up by Labour. He never visited a single partnership before announcing he would close the lot. The vast majority of headteachers were appalled. Gove was forced into a partial U-turn that saved the scheme for a year or so – but now all funding has gone.

In their place Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, furious at Gove's destruction, created the "school games" in a great hurry to plug the gap – an annual Olympic-style sports competition for schools. While much effort has gone into getting the project going, it is deeply flawed as a national model because many schools, particularly primaries, do not have the facilities or staff to allow them to take part. Just 14,000 out of more than 24,000 schools participated this year – when the intention was that all of them would. Fewer than half the schools in London signed up. For the rest, nothing. No school games.

What kind of a national system of school sport is that? Cameron replies that £1bn is being put into youth sport and that more school sports clubs are being set up. It is true that much good work is being done, but the crucial inter-school structures that were being created and that were introducing children from primary schools upwards to sports they would otherwise never enjoy, are now non-existent across large parts of the country.

In 2006 Sebastian Coe, the chairman of London 2012, said: "Winning the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games represents the single biggest opportunity in our lifetime to transform sport and participation in sport in the UK forever. We have a unique opportunity that we must not squander to increase participation in sport, at community and grassroots levels as well as elite levels; from the school playground to the winner's podium."

The brilliant Andy Murray and our medal winners in weeks to come will inspire our youngsters no end. But they deserve more than inspiration. All pupils – not just those whose parents can afford to buy them the best – deserve a school sports legacy from 2012. It is a disgrace, and a tragedy for them, that more has not been done to provide one.

Tags: The Guardian, PE, Schools sports, Policy


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