Minister hits out at Baker over poor sports record

Iain Sproat, the Minister for Sport, has delivered an outspoken attack on past Government policies which he claims have adversely affected school sport.

At a conference in London last week, he said that the teaching hours' contract introduced by Kenneth Baker in 1987 "was certainly one of the things that prevented sport being taken seriously; I regret to say it was done by my own Government".

And he revealed that he was still at odds with the Department for Education and Employment.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Central Council of Physical Recreation in Market Bosworth, Leicestershire, Mr Sproat said that he was continuing his battle to make two hours of physical education, plus four hours' extra-curricular games, compulsory.

"The Department for Education and Employment is a wonderful body of state, but it's not always the easiest department to deal with," he confessed.

Mr Sproat, known as the man with the mission to put sport back into the heart of school life, said that he had embarked on "a revolution for sport in this country because I was absolutely horrified by what I saw when I became minister in 1994".

Sport in schools had almost completely disappeared and the country was failing at international level. The crucial moment came when he was told that the average 14-year-old spent about an hour a week on sport. "When I was at school, we spent two hours a day (on sport). I asked this person: 'Are you really satisfied with this when children spend 25 hours a week watching television?' I was enraged by that person's offhand attitude."

He said this moment of intense fury coalesced into his determination to do something about it. The Sports Minister found an ally in John Major, but has met with tough opposition from the DFEE in his attempt to prescribe hours to be spent on PE and sport. Mr Sproat did score a victory when he persuaded Sir Ron Dearing to make team games a compulsory, not an optional, element in key stage 4.

Another source of embarrassment to Mr Sproat has been his party's policy on the sale of playing fields. An Education Department regulation of 1981, renewed this year, encourages local councils or schools to sell land surplus to requirements. Some 5,000 playing fields have been sold in the past 15 years and around 2,600 are currently under threat.

In order to halt this trend, the Sports Council was made a statutory consultee for planning applications affecting playing fields under the Prime Minister's 1995 "Raising the game" initiative.

Mr Sproat said this was a major step forward. The Environment Secretary would not agree to their sale if he thought this national policy was being damaged. "I hope we have nailed this down although we are still negotiating with the Environment Department to prevent the random and sometimes whimsical sale of sports grounds."

It will be more of the same for the nation's children if Labour gets to power. Tom Pendry, the shadow sports minister, wants all secondary school pupils to do a minimum of two hours' PE a week, and primary schools to do some kind of physical activity every day.

Whatever government is in power, children might also find themselves taking up the noble art of boxing. Both Mr Sproat and Mr Pendry, who boxed for Oxford University, are in favour of the sport being reintroduced in schools.

Mr Sproat invited boxing governing bodies at the conference to see him about it "as you might not get another minister of sport as keen on boxing".

But Mr Pendry said the next day: "We are both trying to bring it back into schools as it teaches discipline. The Minister and I are certainly together on that one, but I suspect that he has trouble with the two women in his life - Virginia and Gillian."

The Conservatives came under fierce attack from Chris Brasher, the Olympic medallist who founded the London marathon. Schools played a vital part in introducing children to sport but they had suffered a "double whammy" with the loss of playing fields and teachers placed on contractual hours instead of being treated like professionals, he said. "History will condemn Mrs Thatcher for ruining the morale of teachers and for selling the playing fields of England."

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