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Few medals for school Olympics

Members of leading sports bodies are critical of the Government for failing to consult them on the first Games for pupils. Phil Revell reports

Young athletes this September will be competing in Glasgow in the UK's first-ever "schools Olympics", funded by the Government. But leading figures in school sports are already condemning it as the "competition leading to nowhere".

They say the pound;1.5 million announced in Gordon Brown's budget statement in March could have been far better spent if ministers had consulted the organisations involved in school sports.

David Littlewood, secretary of the English Schools Athletics Association, said: "I can't imagine many schools being keen to release staff in the first week of term, and the actual competition does not lead anywhere."

Mr Brown said that the pound;1.5m would be awarded from the lottery this year and a further pound;6m would come in future years from the Treasury.

Kate Hoey, a former sports minister, has attacked the proposals. "Little thought seems to have been given to how this new, high-profile event will dovetail with existing competitions and festivals, most of which struggle from year to year to find sponsorship."

For many the announcement came as a complete surprise. The Association for Physical Education said it had not been consulted and there had been minimal consultation with school sports bodies, who had to wait until May for a detailed briefing.

Originally the UK School Games were proposed for this month, bang in the middle of exam time. Inaccuracies in ministerial statements also ruffled feathers. The games were billed as the "biggest-ever school sports event", when they will be much smaller than next month's English Schools Athletics Association track and field championships at Gateshead international stadium.

And the claim that the UK School Games will identify new talent is disputed. "It's not going to identify anyone we do not already know about," said one experienced coach and administrator.

A schools' Olympics was first mooted in 2004, as part of the run-up to Britain's bid for the 2012 Olympics. In November, Richard Caborn, sports minister, called sports governing bodies to a meeting at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. No school sports association was invited.

Joan Jackman, chair of the British Schools Gymnastics Association, said:

"It was extraordinary. The meeting was all about school sport, but we were the only schools sport people there."

The Youth Sport Trust is to co-ordinate the games. The trust supports school sport initiatives, including the specialist colleges. Steve Grainger, the trust's chief executive, said: "School sport is going to have to modernise. We are not criticising the people currently involved, but there is room for improvement. We want to increase the opportunities for more kids to take part," he said.

A draft strategy seen by The TES indicates that the games will expand to include 12 sports by 2009. They will take place in a different city every year and will develop to become a sports festival running over four or five days.

Coaches and administrators accept that the Glasgow games will offer wonderful opportunities for the competitors, and they welcome the additional funding. The British Schools Gymnastics Association, for example, will be able to employ a professional official for the first time.

But many would have preferred to see the pound;7.5m invested in existing competitions. Others fear it may divert potential sponsors from existing events.

Alan Penton is head of sport and recreation at Shropshire council. He has lost two sports development officers in the past few months, as the lottery programmes that funded their work have drawn to a close.

"They were doing valuable work bringing young people into sport," he said.

"I understand that the Government wants to have showcase events, but my personal view is that this money would have been better spent on the grass roots."


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