A sporting chance?

Ironic isn't it that when we're all enjoying the 2012 Olympics, several of the children and teenagers in our lives will no longer have the funding, opportunity and - most importantly - choice to get the most out of the sport offered at their school. Kait Borsay looks at the Government's partial u-turn to axe School Sports Partnerships and explains why it is not enough.

Last Updated: 01/07/11 3:44pm

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We all remember PE at school right? Namely one or two hours a week of football, rugby or cricket for the boys and hockey or netball for the girls - with a bit of athletics thrown in during the summer months. You're one of the lucky ones (and probably one of the younger ones too) if your school offered anything more. And what about those of you who didn't fit into the traditional sporting mold of some of the more established sports? Did you ever get a choice? If you were no good at the sport set for that term the chances are you just stopped trying. Or even turning up for the lesson at all.

"Sport allowed me to be someone with goals and ambitions, someone who wanted to be competitive. "
Gail Emms Quotes of the week

When School Sports Partnerships (SSPs) were introduced in 2000 things changed. Dramatically. The last Government introduced a £162 million ring-fenced annual sports and PE strategy - part of which included SSPs - designed to increase sports and educational opportunities for children.

There are 450 partnerships in the UK, involving every primary, secondary and special school, as well as any dedicated sports colleges in the state sector.

Each partnership is managed full-time by someone usually based within a local sports college - they in turn look after up to eight school sport co-ordinators who are based in the local secondary schools. The school sport co-ordinators not only set out to improve facilities, out of hours learning, and organise various competitions and tournaments, they also liaise with designated primary and special school teachers who each have the aim to improve the quality of sport in their own particular school.

So a clear and organised network of people working to a common cause - and all of that is about to go. It's no wonder over half a million teachers, parents and pupils signed a petition that was delivered to Downing Street a few weeks ago asking David Cameron to think again. A plea endorsed by many of the UK's leading sports stars; Mo Farrah, Darren Campbell, Denise Lewis, Sharron Davies, Tom Daly to name a few.

After immense pressure - and with the Olympics fast approaching - The Department for Education have announced that they will now fund SSPs until the end of the summer term in 2011 at a cost of £47 million, rather than finish the scheme in April as originally announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review. A nice thought? Yes. But I can't help thinking they're missing the point.

So when the scheme finishes next year, what will kids be missing out on? My sister, who works as a primary school teacher and PLT (primary link teacher) in the Oxford and Gloucestershire area, was able to offer some first-hand insight.

In the two schools where she has held a PLT role there has been an unprecedented amount of sport on offer to primary school children. Under the guidance of her school sport co-ordinator (SSCo) who is based at one of the local secondary schools she, with other PLTs based at neighbouring primary schools are able to group together to host and offer a plethora of sporting activity, and most importantly, choice.

Funding allows each PLT twelve days' supply cover to allow for training, organising and co-ordinating sports events that will not just involve their school, but others locally as well. So my sister was able to organise a football tournament for years three and four; likewise other PLTs organised local gymnastics and netball tournaments. Local secondary schools train Young Ambassadors - often Year 10 pupils who, along with other duties, referee and help out at such tournaments.

Two of her Year Six pupils were able to make it through to the finals of a county-wide athletics championships. Local schools are encouraged to join together to compete and are able to use the facilities and equipment of the local secondary schools.

Undiscovered

Specialised coaches have come to her school and run various sporting clubs - karate and handball for example - three pupils from each of the neigbouring schools are able to attend at any one time. And these are just a few examples of what is on offer. Across the country, schools are offering tennis, orienteering, basketball, curling and even cheerleading. And much more.

Just imagine how many undiscovered sports talents there were fifteen years ago - simply because some kids didn't have the chance to pick up a tennis racquet, or go for a hook shot. Kids have a great chance of being able to find a sport they're good at; a huge boost for their health (now and in later life) and confidence. Primary schools can't possibly provide this much choice by just simply pooling together the sporting capabilities of their teachers - who have more than enough on their plate already.

The programme doesn't just focus on introducing or coaching a certain sport either; at my sister's school year six pupils (the oldest year at the school) are trained to be leaders in the playground, running activities for younger pupils during break time.

Five years ago the Labour Government targeted schools with getting kids to do at least three hours of sport a week, two hours of which had to be curriculum-based PE. Within the last two years the aim has been to offer children five hours a week, with the same two hours curriculum based. This five-hour week will soon be long forgotten though: without the SSPs it will be virtually impossible to achieve.

The way sport in schools is accounted for is also a casualty of the spending cuts. The government will not continue with PESSYP Surveys - a way of recording data on the progress of sport within a school. One can't help thinking that if you don't have to log the facts and figures they're easy to deny.

So how do the stats stack up? Baroness Campbell, chair of the Youth Sports Trust, which will also be heavily affected by the cost cutting, has said has said the number of children doing two hours of sport each week has increased from 23% to 95% in the last seven years.

The Youth Sports Trust has also found that the number of children aged between five and sixteen participating in competitive sports within schools had risen from 69% to 78% over the past year.Critics say that established sports are suffering - provisions in rugby, netball and hockey are all down. But with more selection on offer - nearly twenty new sports have been made available to schools since the partnerships came into place - it is simple to see that these provisions have simply made way for an increased choice.

A recent survey details that schools offering cycling has risen from 21% to 55%, golf is up from 14% to 44%, and tennis is up from 70% to 80%.

Encouraging

The Government has said they're axing the ring-fenced funds because the programme is "no longer affordable" and not the best use of resources for encouraging competitive sport in schools. But the information that has led the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to decide that children are still not playing enough competitive sport is misleading to say the least.

As I understand it, a child who has participated in enough competitive fixtures must take part in at least twelve during the school year. To say that those who take part in ten or eleven fixtures are not being competitive enough is bonkers.

While the SSPs would remain in place, schools will have to pay for staff out of their core budget and funding would no longer be protected from use elsewhere. What's a head teacher to do then if the core subjects at their school are desperately in need of funds? Or maybe they're not the biggest advocate of a wide ranging offer of sport at their school? Many will prioritise academic subjects or basic PE provision rather than sport.

To try and appease some of the consternation surrounding the dedicated funding for sport in our schools, the Government have earmarked £65 million to enable every secondary school to release one PE teacher for a day a week (for the next two subsequent school years) to encourage competitive sports.

Whilst this recognises the impact the current SSCOs have had on PE throughout the decade it in no way replaces the full SSP programme.

Primary schools will be worst affected because secondary schools, for the most part, will remain active. They have PE departments with plans in place and budgets that would be harder to move elsewhere.

Yes cuts have to be made but the complete withdrawal of a protected programme that has in time become a huge success? Where's the sense in taking away years of hard work that is now producing cast iron results?

I'm yet to find one of our shining sports stars who believe the cuts make sense. Olympic gold medalist Gail Emms has highlighted the importance of sport in our schools.

"Sport allowed me to be someone with goals and ambitions, someone who wanted to be competitive" she said.

The government has also set aside £10 million to create an annual "schools Olympics", which they claim will help contribute to the legacy from the 2012 Games. But this just reeks to me of an over-inflated school sports day - schools that enter will send their best competitors, leaving the majority behind. Tall poppy syndrome, the best get better and the rest get looked over. And I can't help feeling that many of our smaller schools just won't bother - with fewer competitors to consider it will just loose its relevance.

Good news though that more funding has been pledged to the Youth Sport Trust to support and expand the Young Ambassadors programme into some primary as well as secondary schools. - I just hope there are enough teacher-hours available to support it.

Ultimately the price for hosting the Games will be paid at grass roots level. But if the 'think of the kids' line doesn't tempt you - just consider who'll be footing the bill for rising costs to the NHS as a result of an increase in child obesity and the health problems that go with it - diabetes and overloaded joints to name a few.

During London's bid process for 2012, a pledge was made during the presentation in Singapore - that the Games would provide a legacy, and that on condition of us winning the bid, we would get more young people playing sport. How cruel then, that whilst the funding for the Games remains untouched by cuts, those children who will be inspired by the event may never get a proper chance to discover the range of their own sporting talents. Or indeed get a chance to be a part of the Olympics in the decades to come.

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