Is sport just an afterthought?

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Cash for PE is available, but with obesity on the increase, is the Government's strategy inclusive enough? Jon Slater reports.

Sport and New Labour have not always been comfortable bed-fellows.

Ministers' indecision over whether England should play cricket in Zimbabwe and motor-racing supremo Bernie Ecclestone's pound;1 million donation to the party both damaged the Government's reputation.

But despite these problems, Tony Blair has been keen to associate himself with sporting success, from the world stage right down to school level.

Whether exchanging headers with Kevin Keegan, then Newcastle United manager, at Labour's 1995 conference or providing official backing for bids for the football World Cup or the Olympics, the Prime Minister has been quick to recognise that sporting success can win votes.

Five years after performing for the cameras, Mr Blair put his money where his mouth is, using leftovers from the millennium lottery fund, to make an unprecedented pound;750 million investment in school sport.

That was followed by an additional pound;459m for PE and school sport in last year's three-year spending review, and a target to increase to 75 per cent the number of pupils doing two hours of sport a week.

This money is needed for more than just producing the next generation of David Beckhams and Paula Radcliffes, welcome though that would be.

International health league tables show that the UK is one of the fattest countries in Europe.

One in 10 six-year-olds and one in six 15-year-olds is classed as obese and the rate is rising faster than anywhere else in the developed world.

Even the Government's critics recognise that ministers are not solely to blame for this phenomenon. Changing lifestyles - computer games, the increasing number of children with their own television, fear of crime, the rise of the school run and the popularity of fast food - have all contributed.

But a decline in PE and sport in schools has also played a part.

A British Heart Foundation study published in 2000 found that schools in England allocated less time to PE than anywhere else in the European Union.

In Austria, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland, the average time is 3.5 hours and in France and Germany it is 3.

That report was based on 1994 data. By 1999, the number of English children spending at least two hours per week doing PE fell from 46 per cent to 33 per cent. Although this decline has been reversed, half of pupils still spend less than two hours per week doing PE.

These figures fuel a growing concern that despite investing millions, the Government is not prepared to make the tough choices needed to ensure children get the exercise they need.

Responsibility for school and youth sport falls between the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Despite pressure from the latter, successive education secretaries have not been willing to guarantee PEcurriculum time.

The Government's target does not refer to two hours' timetabled PE but to "two hours' PE and sport inside and outside the curriculum".

That, say critics, means that children who dislike exercise - and are therefore most likely to need it - miss out.

"All children need two hours' PE within the curriculum. This is crucial for the future health of the nation," says Nigel Hook, head of policy at the Central Council for Physical Recreation, an umbrella group which represents sports governing bodies and teachers' organisations.

Children dependent on public transport, particularly in rural areas, face the prospect of walking home if they choose to stay behind for sport, he adds.

Education ministers accept that concentrating on after-school sport means that some pupils will miss out.

They argue that all subject specialists want curriculum time set aside for them and that there are simply not enough hours in the school day.

But according to Andy Burnham MP, who until 2001 was a special adviser at Culture, Media and Sport, the DfES sees school sport as "an afterthought".

"I can say hand on heart that in my view it did not take sport seriously enough.

"I appreciate there are other things that are very, very important to young people - numeracy and literacy - but I think from my experience that it was way too far down the pecking order," he said in Parliament recently.

The way the Government has chosen to spend the investment has also led to criticism that its sports strategy benefits the few rather than the many.

Specialist sports colleges and the school sports co-ordinator programme which is based in the colleges are the cornerstones of the strategy.

The first specialist sports colleges were created in September 1997. Today there are 229 and this is planned to increase to at least 400 by 2005.

Two hundred and twenty school sport co-ordinator partnerships involving 1,216 co-ordinators have been put in place to provide expertise to primaries, to spread good practice and to foster links between schools and clubs.

Each partnership receives a grant of up to pound;270,000 per year.

For specialist sports colleges and their partners who have benefited from state-of-the-art facilities - such as the indoor tennis centre at Deanes school in Benfleet, Essex - additional money, co-ordinators and so on, the transformation has been dramatic.

In April, a progress report on the Government's plan for sport, said that more than two-thirds of specialist sports colleges provide the recommended two hours of PE and sport within and beyond the curriculum for key stages 2, 3 and 4. This compares to around a third in all schools.

For critics, that gap illustrates the problem with the Government's approach. By 2006, the sports college programme will still not cover a quarter of schools.

While the lucky minority benefit, the rest are left to struggle on as before.

"The opportunities that are available in sports colleges should be available to all," said Mr Hook.

The Government is so frustrated by the lack of credit it has received for its school sports reforms that Education Secretary Charles Clarke called sports journalists in before the summer recess to explain the strategy.

But not all in the PE world are so critical. "For the first time that I can remember, PE and school sport are on the Government's agenda," said John Matthews, chief executive of the PE Association UK.

He points to plans for improved professional development for teachers - particularly in primary schools - and the Government's goal of involving every school in the co-ordinator programme.

Until that happens, though, and unless Mr Clarke can ensure that overweight as well as sporty children benefit from the Government's largesse, a vocal section of onlookers will continue to push for a bolder approach.

Primary Forum 28

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