Go on Blair, be a sport

School PE is alive and kicking, but needs a government boost to make a national difference. Phil Revell reports

Manchester's Commonwealth Games will launch in a fanfare of publicity next week, but it is not the largest athletics event in Britain this year.

A bigger athletics meeting, involving more than 1,600 athletes, took place in Nottingham last weekend. I doubt whether you have seen colour supplement specials on the competitors, or watched blow-by-blow coverage of the events. This is because the Nottingham athletics meeting was a school sports event, and school sport is invisible.

The English Schools County Championships represents the very best in school athletics. Some of the athletes competing in Manchester made their first step on a national stage at an English schools event, which has a 70-year pedigree and an impressive record in grooming the track stars of the future.

But the English Schools Athletics Association faces financial meltdown. The Nottingham meet lost pound;130,000. The Trustee Savings Bank withdrew its support in 1997 and ESSA has gone five years without a major sponsor.

ESSA is involved with school athletics at every level. It runs several major tournaments, but it receives no support from the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, or from the lottery.

After a typical British summer, with pouring rain set against a backdrop of sporting disappointment, it is only a matter of time before some politician or pundit lays this lack of success on education's shoulders.

In pundit-land the school sports day is a fiesta of non-competitive sack races supervised by Lesbians R Us. Every other sports field has been sold and what remains is underused because teachers are too idle to get involved. Even when kids do PE, it is allegedly namby-pamby stuff like aerobics and dance, where the teachers ask the kids to slouch a bit faster than usual.

But pundits, politicians and sports reporters have been conspicuous by their absence at ESSA events, possibly because the reality would jar with their comfortably held stereotypes. The fact is that national competition in a variety of sports is alive and well, but ignored by politicians and press alike.

At the other end of the scale, studies have revealed the difficulties primaries face teaching PE - 95 per cent have no full-time PE specialist. Facilities are inadequate and curriculum changes have eaten into PE time. The Government's answer has been the active sports co-ordinators' scheme. The first evaluation of the scheme, in which nearly 200 co-ordinators work with 1,000 schools, revealed the difficulties faced when required to work with up to five schools at a time. They appear to be doing too much co-ordination and not enough sport.

There is more sport now at primary level, but 200 people do not a national system make. Outside the sports action zones and specialist school catchment areas, the strategy will still depend on teachers, and they have quite enough to do already.

There is a way to square this circle. Put a sports co-ordinator into every primary school. They could be seen as peripatetic PE staff, properly trained, but working to a twilight contract that began at midday and continued into the early evening.

Their role would be to promote PE both inside the school and in the wider community. As an additional member of staff, they would release teachers from their heavy workload. At an area level they could be the backbone of a system that co-ordinated school sport right up to the national competitions.

An extra member of staff in every primary would be expensive - more than pound;300 million. But that is half what was spent on the millennium dome.

This may never happen, but if ministers cannot bring themselves to cough up the dosh for a truly national programme, what about a more limited investment, such as a pound;130,000 grant to the ESSA?

Phil Revell is a freelance journalist and former teacher Libby Purves, 72

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