'Make sport accessible and inclusive, and PE can be central to tackling the mental health crisis'

Physical education is due an overhaul, says the chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust, who believes a greater emphasis on sport would improve pupils' mental wellbeing

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A generation is growing up ill-equipped to deal with the daily challenges of the 21st century. Children are struggling with their mental health while grappling with the pressures of social media. They are seeing shifts in personal relationships, rising levels of exam stress, and a decline in empathy and resilience.

It saddens me that research shows today’s young Britons have never been unhappier. And while their mental health is declining, one-in-three children are now classed as obese by the time they leave primary school. One-in-four children under six now has a smartphone and we know young people are becoming increasingly addicted to life in front of a screen. This crisis of the wellbeing of our children is as heartbreaking as it is alarming, and needs to stop now.

Instead of seeing young people suffering from early onset diseases, worrying about their body image, suffering from anxiety and becoming isolated through the digital age, we want to see a world where every child enjoys the life-changing benefits that come from play and sport. This vision is the driving force behind our new four-year strategy.

Accessible, inclusive and purposeful sport, play and PE all hold the key to tackling so many of these issues and giving young people back their future.

Children have never been less active and those who are most in need of sport’s transformative powers are the most likely to miss out. Children who grow up in a disadvantaged area, have a disability, come from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background or are female, are more likely to be inactive. If we are to help young people discover the joy of movement and nurture happy, active lifestyles, we need to take a radically different approach.

The focus should be on delivering physical, social and emotional wellbeing outcomes. This would require new approaches and new norms to be established when it comes to the role of sport in education, as well as a stronger conviction that it empowers and ensures that young people are best placed to drive the change they want to see in the world.  

Developing life skills

Founded in 1995, the world in which the Youth Sport Trust operates has changed considerably in recent years, yet our society and lifestyles have not been able to keep up with the pace of change. Much of our communication now takes place through mobile devices and young people are experiencing fewer real interactions. The world needs compassion, community and face-to-face communication, and I truly believe sport, play and PE offer an unrivaled context in which to develop these essential qualities.

I am sure I speak for many when I say it is time for an overhaul of physical education and how it is delivered; this would place a greater emphasis on the use of sport and physical activity as a vehicle with which to nurture physical, social and emotional health, as well as to develop essential life skills.

We also need to focus relentlessly on removing negative experiences from children’s and youth sport. Through our international work, we are uniquely placed to harvest the very best and most effective practice from around the world to make sport in the UK the most inclusive, accessible and, most of all, fun.

Get this right, and we can focus more explicitly on essential outcomes at key stages in a child’s life – maximising physical development in the early years to promote school readiness before a focus on employability skills later in life to support work readiness. 

But most of all, we need to be at the service of young people. As a children’s charity, we have a deep-seated belief in the capability and vision of young people. We know that if we want to harness the power of sport to transform their life chances, it is best done by them. Over the coming four years, we want to nurture young people’s appetite for activism, and equip and empower them to lead the fight against the issues of their generation.

We must use the power of sport, play and physical education to build the foundations of a healthy and happy life – we will do this because we believe in every child’s future.

Ali Oliver is chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust

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