Why We Need School Sports

Posted: 29th November 2010

Education Secretary Michael Gove announced a week ago that he was removing the ring-fence on the school sports budget, £162m worth of funds which are provided to schools each year to pay for the provision of opportunities for children and young people to participate in more physical activity and competitive recreation. By removing the ring-fence he argues that schools will have the power to decide what they spend their total school budget on. However, as many others have already pointed out, with the immense pressure faced by schools to achieve ever higher targets and indicators for pretty much everything execpet for school sport, it is clear that sport and physical activity in schools is about to suffer big time.

Personally I was pretty mediocre at school sport but I always enjoyed it and I was fortunate enough to go to a school where sport and recreation featured highly on the curriculum. We not only got over 4 hours of quality PE time during the school week, all the way through from Years 7 to 12, but we were also encouraged to take on extra evening and weekend activities such as mountain walking and sailing.

I think I made the school team three times; once for rounders, once for tennis and I ran the 1500m at a local school athletics championship. The 1500m was because no one else was available and I came last. I played tennis so badly in our school match that they learned not to pick me again if they wanted to win. In rounders I managed a blinding one-handed catch out in the field which made me almost burst with pride, but I got into a heap of trouble for leaving a bucket of bats at the school where the away game happened. Did I mention it was with the B team.

That doesn't exactly sound like elite sports pedigree to me either, but I went on to become the most successful athlete my school has ever produced. I was a British Champion track cyclist, British Record Holder, and enjoyed an international sports career spanning 6 seasons.

The fact that I wasn't brilliant at school sport is just a part of my story. I was smart enough to know that the world didn't end at netball, hockey, tennis and athletics and I was interested enough to try my hand at a few things until I found a sport that suited me.

Another common ingredient for sporting success I was missing was "pushy-parent syndrome", something I've witnessed hundreds of times over which seems to be equally destructive and supportive in the development of young talent. Some of the world's best athletes got where they are now because at some point in their young life their parents pressured, cajoled, bribed and blackmailed them into their sport. You can probably name some of these sportspeople yourself!

I didn't have that. It's not that my parents didn't want me to succeed, they just didn't mind how I did it and allowed me to choose what I did with my time. And if I turned around one day and said I wanted to be something else they would have been happy with that too. But without the input from my family, I relied on other sources of inspiration to get involved in sport and that's why I am grateful to this day that I attended a school where sport was regarded as a key ingredient of pupil development.

Mr Gove's timing couldn't have been much worse either; we are less than 2 years away from the biggest sporting event this nation has ever seen. It's not just an opportunity in a generation, it's the biggest opportunity for half a century. Politicians and organisations are falling over themselves to create a lasting legacy for the London 2012 Olympic Games, much of it artificially created by room-fulls of clever suits in a shiny part of London. The real legacy is not just in inspiring a generation of children to take up sport but to create the opportunities for that inspiration to turn into real action. Inspiration isn't worth much if it doesn't lead to anything.

So far though I've talked about the need for sports in schools to provide a platform for creating the sports talent of the future. I have yet to mention the really fundamental reason why Michael Gove should leave the school sports budget exactly where it is.

The work landscape is changing so fast that our schools are dangerously ill-preparing our children and young people for the future. This link to a video on YouTube makes the case brilliantly. The education system is in a fierce battle to provide relevant learning opportunities for children because changes are coming so fast and ideas, careers and even whole industries are quickly becoming obsolete. Schools are already sprinting as hard as they can, just to stand still.

There is one area of schooling that consistently provides the most relevant and enduring learning to children, and that is sports and physical recreation. Not only do they teach young people about how the body works and encourage a fitter and healthier outlook, something we can no longer take for granted is being addressed by parents, but it also instills lessons in team working, persuasion, coping with failure, setting goals, working hard, focus, preparation, fair play and being competitive.

Being competitive is something us Brits struggle with somewhat. There appears to be something wrong with declaring that we want to win something because in the process of winning, there has to be losing and it seems uncomfortable, or even downright rude, to want to inflict that kind of disappointment on someone else.

Sure, when we lose enough times, we get fed up with it and start to look for the things we can shine in, and start winning there instead. Sport in schools is more than an opportunity to run around in the cold, it's a fundamental part of us learning who we are and experiencing and developing skills that will set us up for life. We can't all become elite athletes and we won't all thrive in sporting competition, but we will learn things about ourselves that can't be taught sitting still.

If Michael Gove wants a generation of children to grow up and become the problem-solvers, entrepreneurs, hard-working, innovative, driven, competetive adults of the future then he needs to revaluate his plan and protect the future of sport in schools once more. I don't even care if he doesn't say he was wrong for taking it. I do care that he puts it back.




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