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PE still exercising ministers

FROM "Newcastle fan" Tony Blair down, this Government is obsessed by football. The "people's party" has pounced on the people's game as a way of connecting with the public. But behind the glamour of World Cup bids and photo-shoots with stars, is a conflict at the heart of government about how to engage young people in sport and produce the stars of the future.

The Department of National Heritage (now Culture, Media and Sport) took responsibility for sport from the Department for Education in 1992. And the two have been at loggerheads ever since over PE in schools.

The problems persisted when Labour took power. A 1998 report by the Commons select committee on culture, media and sport, criticised co-operation between the two departments. Indeed the then sports minister, Tony Banks, admitted to the committee that the Government had not worked out which department should do what on sport - or even where the sports minister should be based.

At first sight, last week's launch of the Government's ports strategy should signal the end of the argument. Both departments enthusiastically backed the plans to create more specialist sports colleges, improve facilities in primary schools and expand the range of sports available and after-school provision.

But problems remain. In particular, sports ministers, pressured by the sports lobby, have always been keen to have a minimum PE entitlement for pupils in the mainstream curriculum.

At the sports policy launch, Education Secretary David Blunkett nodded in that direction by saying he hoped that schools would set aside two hours a week for PE, but he, like his predecessors, balked at compulsion.

So despite the talk of reviving competitive team games and developing talent, sport for all will remain just an aspiration.

A recent survey showed that only one in nine six to eight-year-olds spends two or more hours a week doing school sport. Unless the strategy improves that figure, we are likely to see a return to the old arguments.

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