Coalition's Mr Culture wants to be 2012 winner

22nd April 2011 at 01:00
The minister is determined to bring Olympic ideals to every UK school in the run-up to the London Games

To mark 500 days before the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, the organisers unveiled a giant clock in Trafalgar Square to count down the hours, minutes and seconds until the big day.

The 14 March ceremony signalled the start of more than a year of Olympic initiatives to put sport at the forefront of people's minds. But less than 24 hours in, the countdown clock froze. Jeremy Hunt, who as culture secretary is closely involved with these initiatives, will be hoping his plans do not suffer a similar false start.

Chief among these is a nationwide sporting programme called the School Games that will see competitive sport in every school across the country, culminating in a major national sporting event to be held at the Olympic Park just weeks before the 2012 Games begin.

"When we're talking about the School Games we're not talking about one day at the end of the year. We're talking about a whole programme of competitive sport and a real attempt to boost the 21 per cent who play such sport at the moment," Mr Hunt says.

"We want schools to turn their sports days into something bigger and better, which draw from the Olympic ideals."

And he adds: "The point of it is not just to have a one-off tournament that's fantastic next year. We want to create something that will deliver lasting change, and a lasting increase in the number of children participating in competitive school sport."

The grand plans follow vociferous criticism of the Government over its approach to school sport, with education secretary Michael Gove's announcement that he planned to scrap the #163;162 million funding of School Sports Partnerships.

The School Games will take place over four levels, with leagues and other competitions within schools, culminating in the schools' sports day. Competition between schools will also be organised on a district and county level, before it goes national at the Olympic Stadium.

Mr Hunt, Conservative MP for South West Surrey, said that pushing schools towards more competitive sport will have a tremendous impact on a pupil's wider school life.

"For me, and for many people, competitive sport is the best way to teach children the values that are going to be really important in later life," he says.

"The ability to cope with setbacks, to win with grace, to lose with dignity, to play as a team, to stretch yourself to the limits, to discover talents you didn't realise you had. This is not just what sport is about - it is what life is about."

And these are lessons that Mr Hunt says he learnt himself while playing sport at his school, Charterhouse in Surrey - particularly losing with dignity, as he was by his own admission "rubbish".

"I was never in the first XI or first XV except on one occasion when a flu virus wiped out half the school and I was magically promoted. And I think I only ever scored one try at rugby when we had a scrum on the line and I just fell on top of the ball," he says with a rueful smile, before adding: "I loved participating in sport, without having any talent in it."

He suggests that this is what drives his belief that every child should be involved in competitive sport, regardless of their ability.

"We want all children to play sport in all schools. Not just those who are good at it or that go to schools that prioritise sport," he says. "One of the things we want to do with the School Games is to draw in schools that haven't prioritised sport and make them realise how it can transform morale.

"The battle we're trying to fight is to move away from sport being something that is nice to do if you can and all that really matters is numeracy and literacy targets, to a system where heads taking sport seriously can help your numeracy and literacy targets because it improves concentration, it improves discipline and it contributes to success elsewhere."

Mr Hunt is particularly keen to be seen as a supporter for school sport after the massive backlash by teachers, coaches and famous athletes last autumn against the proposed cuts to school sport funding.

At the time Mr Gove said that the #163;2.4 billion invested in school sport over seven years had not resulted in enough pupils playing competitively - with 700 schools not involved at all in competitive matches with other schools.

But the move to scrap the School Sports Partnerships funding provoked a public outcry from parents, pupils and teachers and a sharp volte-face by the Government, which promised to continue the funding until its replacement is brought in.

And although the funding settlement, when it did arrive, was only half of the previous #163;162 million, many, including the Youth Sport Trust's outgoing chief executive Steve Grainger, believe that it was Mr Hunt's work behind the scenes that led to the change of heart from the Government - praise shrugged off by the culture secretary.

"Michael Gove didn't cut funding. He had a different vision of how funding should flow and it's based on giving authority and the power of decision-making to those who are at the grass roots - to those who are responsible for children's education," he says.

"Michael Gove is passionately committed to school sport. His view is that the best way to have a good sporting ethos in a school is to give heads and teachers the power to make their own vision happen."

Despite this, Mr Gove was forced to put his vision - if not to one side - on hold, at least.

"We listened to people who said there needs to be a way to move from the old system to the new one," Mr Hunt says diplomatically.

"I think we've ended up in a good place. I'm very happy that what we have in position will combine Michael Gove's vision of a school system with sport enthused and driven from the grass roots, combined with my determination to make sure we grasp the opportunity of 2012 and that it doesn't drift by."

And it is this more than anything that would have been playing on the culture secretary's mind.

For the Government to allow school sports to be downgraded in the run-up to the world's biggest sporting event risked significant political damage.

"I think everyone in Government is aware that having a successful 2012 will be the single biggest responsibility next year - if not for the whole half of this parliament," he says, without understatement.

His job is not without pressure, then. Indeed, as the days count down to next July, Mr Hunt will be keeping his fingers crossed that his plans don't suffer another hiccup like that clock in Trafalgar Square.

CV

1966: Born, Surrey

Education:

1979: Charterhouse School, Godalming, Surrey

1984: Oxford University (PPE)

Career:

1988: Teaching English in Japan

1990: Sets up educational publishing business, Hotcourses

2005: Elected MP for South West Surrey

2005: Appointed shadow minister for disabled people

2007: Shadow culture secretary

2010: Re-elected with majority of more than 10,000

2010: Appointed culture secretary in coalition Government

DROPPED TARGET

ADULTS LOSE OUT

Jeremy Hunt has quietly dropped a key 2012 Olympics legacy target to get a million adults into sport.

After winning the Olympics in 2005, the then Labour Government announced that it would provide cash to push a million adults into taking up sport.

But the plans were quietly dropped shortly after the Coalition was formed, with the culture secretary wanting to focus more on younger people.

The School Games will become an intrinsic part of the strategy to get more young people involved in sport earlier.

Mr Hunt said of the dropped target: "In the current environment it's pretty hard to justify Sport England funding office workers to try and encourage them to go to the gym more often."

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