By a judicial mix of luck and judgement, the last English government arrived at a cluster of policies for Physical Education and School Sport that set England apart from almost every other country in the world. They were not perfect, of course, but compared to the situation around the world – where PE is often twilight subject undermined by poor facilities, badly or untrained staff, and minimal central support – our PE teachers found themselves in the unfamiliar situation of being relatively happy.
The Physical Education, School Sport and Club Links / Young People (PESSCL / PESSYP) scheme drew together a range of initiatives like School Sport Partnerships (SSP) and Gifted and Talent PE and Sport (G&TPES) that evolved over a period of ten or so years into well-designed, well-delivered programmes that benefited millions of children. And the last national evaluation for G&TPES judged the scheme to be the best in the world. I know this because I directed the study. We identified many problems, including the old familiar of wildly inconsistent practice in primary schools, but we also reported highly sophisticated methods in some schools, and a general pattern of good practice.
In light of the fact that most countries’ school-based talent development strategies lie somewhere behind blind luck and voodoo, the English approach provides a rare and slightly uncomfortable source of pride!
And then things changed. The new government immediately started closing schemes and changing income streams. SSPs were blocked, and ripples of uncertainty spread across the country. Since then other schemes have closed, and it is accurate to say the England no longer has a strategy for school sport.
The unveiling of a £100m government school sport policy designed to combat criticism over the Olympic legacy has been delayed due to a dispute between the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and the education secretary, Michael Gove.
The standoff between the Health and Education departments over a replacement for the £162m school sport partnerships controversially axed by Gove in 2010 has caused them to miss a pre-Christmas deadline to announce the new scheme.
It had been hoped the strategy would be unveiled this week, coinciding with announcements on investing £492m in grassroots sport and £347m in elite Olympic sports ahead of the Rio Games in 2016.
The use of the word ‘strategy’ is interesting, isn’t it? The word usually refers to some sort of plan or forethought. But it is clear that the Government’s proposals are merely policy fluff designed to pacify the armies of Olympians who condemned the casual killing of a sporting legacy.
And thank heavens for the athletes, as the plaintiff cries of teachers, parents and advocacy groups were simply ignored.
But we should not expect matters to return to the way they were. The funding for schools has been cut, and many of the most successful programmes have been either cut or reorganised. The real problem, though, is the almost total absence of evidence or consultation behind the new policy. The quite substantial body of research into effective practice, and especially into inspiring hard-to-reach groups though sport, seems not to have been touched. Instead, we hear ill-informed ministers parroting simple-minded nonsense of the urgent need for ‘more competition’.
Does it matter? Of course it does.
Evidence of increasingly high levels of sedentary behaviour in both children and adults means genuine cause for concern. Nike’s recent ‘Designed to Move’ report told of an reduction of physical activity levels around the world, and including the United Kingdom.
Inactive children and adults are not just denied the joy of movement and play. They are also vulnerable to increased risk of a host of chronic diseases, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, and are deprived of the most effective and cost-effective method for developing effective overall functioning, including intellectual performance, psychological and social well-being.
PE and school sport are the only experiences of physical activity available to every child. So, the importance of the school as a setting for being active, for learning sporting skills, and for developing talents is unequalled by any other context.
School sport is a political football (apologies for the pun!). And it deserves better, as it is too important to leave to the egos and ignorances of politicians. The Government uses the language of evidence-based policies without subjecting itself to its discipline. Instead, they rely on lazy presumptions and an ideologically driven vision of sport that as out-dated as it is impotent.