Five hours for one in a million

Bold new government plans for five hours of sport for school pupils sent Mick Owen into the field to find out about the proverbial state of play. After extensive research, he wonders whether too much school sport could be more than enough

Is five hours of school sport ready for lift off?

Regular consumers of print media will no doubt have recognised the growing propensity for newspapers and magazines to report not the news but other organs’ reporting of the news. With 24-hour television news channels and the proliferation of news management agencies à la Max Clifford, any genuinely newsworthy item will have been hunted down, butchered for every possible ‘angle’, filleted for every bit of meat and the bones boiled down for soup by the time the man with the inky fingers starts to make up tomorrow’s front page. And that’s if you publish daily.

And so it is that we move back a few weeks to the report that at least one news website reported: “All children to have five hours of sport a week under Brown plans”. First things first: is that what Big Gordon went all the way to West London to announce? Well, according to the shiny new Department for Children, Schools and Families, not quite. As is the case with government announcements these days the press release led with the money – apparently £100 million – and then slipped in the Opportunity Knocks factor. So how did the first sentence actually read? “A £100m campaign to give every child the chance of five hours of sport every week was announced by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown today.” The italics, of course, are mine and it goes on to tell us that the funding is aimed at providing: up to five hours of sport per week for all pupils; a new national school sport week, where all schools will be encouraged to run sports days and inter-school tournaments; a network of 225 competition managers across the country; and more coaches in schools and the community.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the idea of turning back the clock and, like The Broon, “I was lucky enough to have primary and secondary schools that had sport at the centre of their ethos” but even ignoring the usual political thrusts about this not being new money, we have already endured competition managers since 2005 in some parts of England and, the vexed question of ‘engaging’ kids who don’t actually go to school aside, I have very real concerns about the prudence of pouring any more funding into the PESCCL franchise. Why? Because it isn’t providing value for money.

At the National Sports Development Seminar in June John Eady stood on a platform still warm from Jennie Price’s fleeting presence and, backed up by extensive research data, made the astonishing claim that “after two years in the presence of PE professionals there is a drop in participation of 25%”; which is to say that one quarter of all children lose interest in sport in their first two years at secondary school. If we double the amount of exposure as the PM seems to want, will that figure rise to half?

As chance would have it, I was pondering this last question when my fourteen-year-old daughter produced her school report card, now cunningly disguised as a ‘student profile’. Like a good parent, I discussed the import of the grids and letters for her real subjects before addressing PE. Unlike many of her peers, my daughter had recently developed an interest in sport, having found a niche at prop forward in the local club’s under-seventeen girls’ side. Despite being singularly uncoordinated and naturally possessed of neither speed nor stamina, she nevertheless has legitimate aspirations to ‘play county’ and has attended regional development days. The PE staff had given her across the board 2s, so she must have been reasonably communicative, punctual, organised and motivated. I asked her how she had managed this uniformly good result given her complete lack of obvious athletic wherewithal. “That’s what they give you as long as you turn up and bring your kit,” she explained. It seems she is in the ‘second group’ with whom the teachers have developed a live and let live approach whereby the students aren’t taxed to improve, learn or even try, just so long as they cause no trouble and allow the staff to focus on the ‘first group’, the ones who do know one end of a bat from the other.

Admittedly, this is only a vignette but it’s not an attractive small picture of “PE and School Sport”, especially given that none of the four teenagers in my care take part in any after-school sport and, but for eldest girl playing netters for one season, never have. So what about the club links that form the second half of the PESSCL promise?

Continuing my non-scientific research, I carried out a straw poll of the various sporting people who happened past me in the pub on a Friday night. I shared a pint with the coach of a local cricket club (we have about half a dozen such clubs for a population of 30,000 souls) and asked him what help he had received from either of the two school sports coordinators based in the town. Once I had explained my jargon, he laughed uproariously and indicated, with language more familiar to Australian cricket followers than those from our own fair shores, that neither of our august secondary schools – one of which is a designated sports college – ever troubled him. By chance, both of the immediate past chairpeople (they are both women) of the rugby club’s mini and juniors section were in, who had between them overseen seven years in which numbers rose to three hundred children with over thirty qualified coaches. And England won a World Cup. Periphrasis of their view of ‘our’ school sports partnership would employ words like ‘selfish’, ‘inconsistent’ and ‘one-sided’. Finally I accosted an ex-teacher who, when last we met, was running a basketball club for young people using peer coaches to engage hard-to-reach young people in a positive community activity. All he needed was an affordable venue for when his Awards for All grant ran out. “How’s the club, Dave?” I asked. “Failed,” he said. “The leisure centre won’t let us use their hall – its ‘needed’ for aerobics – and the school wouldn’t give us a cheap court.” And the PE Staff?  “Useless.”

Obviously I realise I may very well have met the only cricket, rugby and basketball volunteers in the country who are dissatisfied with what PESCCL is delivering and I already know that my daughter is one in a million; so what do the national statistics say? Naturally I will eschew journalistic rigour and go straight to the headlines. According to the DfCSF, 80% of school students received a minimum of two hours quality school sport a week in 2006. Now we don’t have time to dance around the handbag of ‘quality’ but even the best devised lesson plan delivered by a teacher who takes said plan, changes her K-Skips for plimsolls, pulls on her overcoat and goes outside to  a winter playground with a class of nine-year-olds in t-shirts and shorts is going struggle to hit any objective mark of coaching quality.

We have been benefiting from PESCCL since “December 2004 when the Prime Minister announced a new ambition to offer all children at least four hours of sport every week”. So after two and half years we still do not achieve the basic two hours for 20% of our kids – sorry, of our kids who are in school – and, with the change of leader in Number 10, our sights have raised from four hours to five, with the extra hour being added to the list of things we expect, or rather Gordon and his acolytes, expect of “parents, volunteers and the sporting world”. And the failure to achieve even the basic two hours is despite the network of 400 specialist sport colleges complete with PDMs, 411 SSPs, 2,464 SSCOs and 14,397 PLTs that are in place. If you need an acronym guide go to the Youth Sport Trust website.

So much money; so many posts for education and sports development professionals; so much busyness; so many boxes being ticked; so little really changing where it really matters: in the clubs that actually deliver sustainable sport in this country. To paraphrase Bill Maclaren, “They’ll not be celebrating young Brown’s £100m announcement down at >>insert sports club >> tonight.”

Mick Owen is a coach, trainer and consultant

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