Forget the needle - let's play the game

Diane Spencer meets the former teacher who braves the scrum of politics to champion sports in the nation's schools

David Oxley's early life as a rugby player, a teacher, and chief executive of the Rugby Football League, have proved invaluable for his multifarious roles in the nation's sporting life.

He chairs the Central Council of Physical Recreation, he's a member of the English Sports Council and chairs its lottery sports fund award panel, and he is about to become vice-chair of a new company, the Confederation of British Sport (CBS). And those are just the main organisations - there's also the life membership of the Papua New Guinea Rugby Football League. . .

So he has a foot in the state and voluntary sectors. Not an easy task, as the sports administration world is fraught with factions, riven by politics, dogged by history and dominated by prima donnas.

The council's annual conference in Huntingdon next week should, he hopes, herald a new era for sport with the launch of the CBS. This will for the first time bring together the disparate bodies in the voluntary sector: the CCPR, the British Olympic Association and the sports associations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Mr Oxley reckons the company, to be chaired by the BOA's Dick Palmer, will have "real muscle" as it will be composed of "strong personalities and will give the Government something tangible to deal with". Tony Banks, the Sports Minister, supports it, he said.

When Mr Oxley became chairman of the CCPR, many were sceptical of his appointment because of his association with the Sports Council. Critics feared for the fierce independence of the CCPR, which represents 280 governing bodies of sport and is free to lobby politicians and provides a forum for ideas.

"We all had to get over old hostilities and antagonisms. The relationship has done no harm at all; I haven't found it difficult - it's very positive. It doesn't have to be eitheror."

And his post as chairman of the sports lottery panel helps to break down barriers and gain access to influential people. He derives "real joy, pleasure and pride" in visiting some of the lottery schemes, proudly reciting the statistics: around 2,800 based in inner cities, Pounds 800 million in grants.

It's even better when they are opened by ministers: "I've got David Blunkett's attention for four hours on Sunday." The Education Secretary was opening a new community sports centre at a school in his Hillsborough constituency. "It's my duty to press the cause of sport in schools, to get different Government departments to talk to each other. I don't think they do."

He cited the example of last January, when Tony Banks' department announced it was stopping the sale of playing fields at around the same time as Mr Blunkett relaxed the primary-school curriculum on PE.

As a former teacher - head of English at St Peter's, an independent boarding school in York, and civilian head of the Duke of York's Royal Military School in Dover - he is aware of the benefits of sport to young people, and not only for providing regular physical activity and developing future champions. "It can play a role in fighting social exclusion, drug taking. . . but sport can't do it alone and these objectives mustn't be the be-all and end-all of sport. "

Born and brought up in Yorkshire, he attended the independent Hymers College in Hull, went on to read English at Worcester College, Oxford, and took up a series of posts in independent schools before leaving teaching in the mid-1970s for his other love: rugby league. He became chief executive of the Rugby Football League in 1987. Contacts via that sport have proved valuable: Sir Rodney Walker, chairman of the league, now chairs the UK Sports Council and Maurice Lindsay, Mr Oxley's successor, now managing director of Super League Europe, chairs the CCPR's major spectator sports division.

Education runs in the family. His youngest daughter, Lucy, is taking a four-year BEd course at Nottingham Trent University. From her experience, Mr Oxley is optimistic of a change in attitude towards physical education and sport in teacher training. A high percentage of her contemporaries want to do PE as an optional course. "I think this is a sign that there's a swing towards them."

In the fractious sports world, Mr Oxley is well respected and liked. "Almost too nice," commented one protagonist. "He has a sincere interest in the welfare of sport and leisure at all levels," said another.

The chairman hopes that by the end of three days, the question mark of the conference theme:"Britain: a player on the world stage?" will have gone.

"One clear message-let's get our act together, forget personalities, egos and territories. For the sake of British sport, particularly youngsters, it's got to happen."

On that note of exhortation, it was time to go to the National Portrait Gallery to see the exhibition of sporting heroes with his wife Bridget before attending a fund-raising dinner at Buckingham Palace hosted by Prince Philip, who is president of the CCPR. Then home to Harrogate.

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