Published on August 13th, 2012 | by Alex Rickets0
School sports: the London 2012 ‘legacy’
It was only a matter of time. With the Olympic Games drawing to an overwhelmingly successful close, politicians conspicuous by their relative silence over the last fortnight (with the notable exception of Boris Johnson) are straining themselves to get aboard the London 2012 bandwagon and boost their political capital. Leading the way, naturally, is our esteemed Prime Minister, who last week declared that competitive team sports will be made compulsory for all primary school children in England. David Cameron is understandably keen to tap into the unusual positivity still sweeping our nation by establishing an Olympics ‘legacy’.
Firstly, it is essential to understand that this policy declaration is highly unlikely to see the light of day in a substantive sense. It is all too easy to visualise, in a scene that could have been parachuted straight out of The Thick of It, the PM’s advisers scrambling around for media sound bites to feed to the public at the height of nationalistic Olympics pride. Cameron knows that the right words here are capable of transforming his perception as a leader. In a few months the cold reality of recessionary times will have sunk back in, London 2012 will be a distant memory, and no-one will remember the precise form of these words. It is in his political interest to tell the public what they want to hear while the Olympics glow remains, notwithstanding the fundamental emptiness of half-baked policy ideas such as this.
Secondly, the idea itself is ill-advised. Promoting competition per se before exercise in the curricula of young children is a fallacy. David Cameron obviously wants to be seen to invest in the future success of our athletes, but such a policy has the potential to alienate kids before they have properly sampled sport and athletics. As has been pointed out, making competitive sport compulsory at a formative age could actually be detrimental to Britain’s future Olympics prospects, because this would do nothing to widen participation in exercise classes beyond those who, by virtue of their background, react positively to physical competition. What is needed to create a true London 2012 legacy is a more thoughtful approach addressing why many children are put off exercise in school.
Which brings us neatly to past and present government policy on school sports. New Labour have been heavily lambasted for a lot of the things they did in office, but on this issue at least their record was and is impressive. To tackle the gradual decline in school sports participation which had reached its climax under John Major’s premiership, in 2002 the Labour government launched School Sports Partnerships (SSPs) – basically local networks of organised school sport – as part of its Physical Education, School Sport and Club Links strategy. The impact of SSPs has been widely praised for increasing the quality and quantity of PE opportunities for young people. By 2009, 90% of children were doing two hours of sport a week, a massive improvement in comparison to a few years earlier. Indeed, it has been argued that New Labour’s approach, attempting to include as many children as possible in organised activities notwithstanding ability, has been one of the major factors behind Team GB’s impressive medal haul at London 2012.
By contrast, our current Coalition government has done much to dismantle the previous administration’s intelligent approach. As part of the deficit reduction drive, funding for the SSP programme is in the process of being cut from £162 million to just £9 million next year. Freedom of Information requests have revealed that there are now 110 fewer SSPs than there were under the last government, a decrease of 37%. They have also revealed a 60% decrease in the amount of school time dedicated to PE activities for children.
Furthermore, David Cameron’s scrapping of school sport targets (New Labour had required that schools offer pupils at least two hours of sport a week) demonstrates that he does not understand the important distinction between a focus on competition and exercise. In attempting to justify this abandonment on the grounds that “a lot of schools were meeting that [the target] by doing things like Indian dance or whatever, that you and I probably wouldn’t think of as sport” the PM clearly rejects the notion that non-competitive exercise can be just as beneficial to kids who are less predisposed to physical competition.
Creating an Olympics ‘legacy’ is the Westminster buzzword at the moment; it is not surprising that politicians are enthusiastic to milk the success of London 2012. Presumably policy changes will eventually occur, although they are unlikely to exactly mirror David Cameron’s bold declaration that competitive team sports will be made compulsory for all primary school children. It is to be hoped that whatever school sports measures are implemented recognise that an emphasis on exercise rather than physical competition is the desirable way forward at primary school level. This approach will both positively impact on obesity levels through its greater inclusivity and, ironically, safeguard the future competitive success of our athletes and sportsmen by virtue of this greater pool of engaged talent. Once children have been introduced to different activities, a greater focus on competition at secondary school level would be far less harmful and, conversely, more beneficial.
This government’s track record on promoting school sports may be patchy, bringing into focus its current opportunism in feeding off the London 2012 effect, but the real test starts now. In this area David Cameron has much to learn from New Labour: at the very least he needs to stop reversing the previous administration’s good work in increasing PE participation. We have just witnessed a magnificent Olympic Games: this really is a unique opportunity to establish an effective and truly lasting school exercise policy. Call it the 2012 ‘legacy’; call it whatever you want, but it is too good a chance to spurn.