Intense pressure on budgets and lack of support from managements threaten the future of sport in colleges, a new report warns.
A study of sport in 330 colleges by the Further Education Funding Council says most colleges have poor or merely adequate equipment. Few boast top-notch facilities. Funding pressures prevent institutions from investing in equipment, often making it impossible for them to shape the future of young athletes.
The report comes as several colleges with a good name for sport warn of cuts. De La Salle in Salford, whose old boys include former rugby union forward Tony Neary and former Lancashire cricketer Frank Hayes, was considering abandoning a new building programme this week because of the Government's latest "efficiency" cuts.
As colleges increase courses to attract more students and boost their funds, sports teachers are being stretched further. Teachers specialising in subjects from maths to history who have traditionally volunteered their free time to help out are now under pressure to spend more time on their own subjects.
The tradition of reserving Wednesday afternoon for sport is in jeopardy as teachers try to cram more classes into the day.
Colleges are often failing to check course quality. Last month, the FEFC introduced strict guidelines to help colleges test the quality of franchised courses which are paid for by colleges but run by others - many of these are sports courses. Now the council claims that quality checks for in-house courses are also ineffective.
"Quality assurance for optional sports provision is generally weak," the report adds. Colleges need to collect data on recruitment and attendance, consider what students have learned from a course and compare their results in sport with those in other subjects.
But the popularity of sport in colleges, both as a subject and a recreational activity is soaring. Last year 4,500 students from the further education sector took A-levels in sport-related subjects, compared with 3,200 two years ago.
The rise in demand gives sport a higher ranking than either German or Spanish and means it is almost as popular as computer studies. Colleges encourage students to opt for some sport within their busy timetables by holding activities on evenings or at weekends.
Some institutions have shown initiative to raise funds. They have rented out their facilities to the community at weekends, approached local businesses, the National Lottery or the FEFC itself.
One sixth-form college received Pounds 727,000 of lottery cash towards a Pounds 2 million project to create facilities for student and community use.
Seventeen colleges were recently awarded National Lottery grants. One principal said: "Make no mistake, this is cash in lieu of what the Government should be giving us."
The report suggests that timetable troubles can be beaten by scheduling sports classes ahead of a lunch break. This allows students to continue to play for an extra session without overlapping with other classes, as one college has shown.
An alternative is for the college to take out membership of the local sports centre allowing students to pop in for free when they have spare time.
Colleges need to concentrate on their female population, the report says. In many institutions only 30 per cent of those doing sport are women. This is often because staff have not considered their preferences. One college is spending Pounds 100,000 to improve training facilities, after finding women students found the environment too male.
Colleges' success in providing a wide selection of sports varies wildly. The report says management and staff must back the subject, plan and monitor it carefully, for sport be a winner.