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Why school sport is the new political football

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Matt Slater | 09:46 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Debbie Foote will not win any medals at London 2012 and is unlikely to win any in 2016 or 2020 either. She is also never going to score a goal for her country, win Wimbledon or score a try at Twickenham.

But Debbie, a 17-year-old A-level student from Grantham, Lincolnshire, might just be this country's greatest sporting champion for years. Because when the coalition government announced it would be withdrawing the £162m annual budget for School Sports Partnerships (SSPs), Foote responded with the fighting instincts of a born competitor.

Regardless of what you think of the decision to axe funding for SSPs (and I'll get back to that), you have to be impressed with a teenager who gets 620,000 people to sign a petition attacking the cut and then takes it to the Prime Minister's front door.

I managed to talk to Debbie before and after she delivered this message on Tuesday and her calm confidence and prepossessing nature never wavered. It was impressive stuff but perhaps not so surprising for the head girl of the school Margaret Thatcher was head girl of almost 70 years ago. As a self-confessed "child of Thatcher", David Cameron must recognise the hallmark.

What remains to be seen, however, is if he and his ministers recognise the merits of Foote's argument - recent hints suggest they still haven't decided.

But before I explore what might happen next to PE in the UK, let's have a short history lesson (the sort that might be given by a PE teacher when the history teacher is off sick).

Once upon a time, British schools specialised in rough doses of basic learning and vigorous play. Luckier children, from wealthier families, got slightly better learning and even more vigorous play.

What didn't kill you, made you stronger, and those left standing would be the type of chaps (girls were excused from the play, and the learning) who might build a railroad in India or defeat a European despot.

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But over time, thinking about childhood changed. Vigorous play, relentless competition and two hours of cross-country running in January fell out of fashion.

Pretty soon, all the rough stuff, the rivalries against the lot down the road and the tears at the summer sports day, were a thing of the past. There were no more losers because there were no more winners. And even if you wanted to stage some old-fashioned matches or races you couldn't, because the school's bottom field is now a housing estate and the top field has become the teachers' car park.

But a funny thing happened during this period of evolution: our national sports teams got worse, youngsters got bored and we all put on weight. By 2002, only 25% of schoolchildren aged 5-16 were playing at least two hours of sport a week.

So something had to change and, to be fair, most politicians realised this at around the same time (and I don't think it's helpful to apportion blame for getting us to this point as both sides played their part).

This brings us to the last government's plan for the creation of a nationwide network of partnerships between primary, secondary and specialist sports schools. These SSPs, 450 of them, bring together 4,000 specially-trained staff and numerous volunteers to improve the amount, range and quality of sport played in schools.

And, by almost every measure, it has worked. By 2009, 90% of children aged 5-16 were playing at least two hours of sport, the average number of sports offered at schools has risen from 14 to 19 and over the last three years one million more children are playing competitive sport too.

As Baroness Sue Campbell, the chair of the charity that help set up SSPs, the Youth Sport Trust, said in a recent letter to Cameron and Education Minister Michael Gove: "School Sports Partnerships have not only met the targets set by the previous government but exceeded every single one."

So why cut it? Well, that's a question numerous editorial writers, 79 current and former British Olympians, politicians from all parties (some privately), bemused observers from abroad and now 620,000 concerned citizens have been asking for the last seven weeks.

The short answer is Gove's Department for Education hasn't really cut it at all: the state's £162m annual contribution to SSPs has simply been "de-ring-fenced", or returned to the school budget pot. The idea being that head teachers should decide how best to spend the money, particularly at a time when New Labour fripperies are being trimmed across the board due to our alarming debts.

A slightly more developed answer has emerged in recent weeks that has suggested SSPs are not quite the success story many believe. Cameron, in a ding-dong PMQs exchange with Ed Miliband, went as far as to call them "a complete failure", carefully picking his statistics to point out they hadn't done much for increasing the amount of competitive sport played at all.

This was an argument developed by Gove last week when he responded to strident criticism of the decision to shelve SSP funding by painting a picture of out-of-control bureaucracy, mind-numbing job descriptions and a fundamental failure to provide value for money.

So which is it? Are SSPs a proven success, a "world-leading initiative" and exactly the type of thing a country that bids to stage major sporting events should be investing in, or are they inefficient luxuries we can no longer afford?

There are times in this job when it's difficult to hold the middle ground - what is sometimes termed "the view from nowhere" - and this is one of them.

I will simply echo what former Culture, Media and Sport and Health Minister Andy Burnham said to me during Tuesday's protest against the perceived cuts: nobody is suggesting the system was perfect and could not have been streamlined, but to scrap it now is baby-out-with-the-bathwater treatment. He actually called it "an act of vandalism".

I will also add that the Department for Education hasn't helped itself in selling its policy by failing to consult properly with people on the ground or even other government departments. I think this is why Cameron changed his tune last week and dropped a pretty remarkable hint that this "cut" isn't a done deal.

I'm not sure this means we are going to get the U-turn many are calling for but I hope we are going to get something that preserves the best bits of SSPs and focuses minds on the need to do more and to do it better. It's what Debbie and her schoolmates deserve.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Whatever side of the argument you are on, I personally think the fact that this campaign has been so high profile in the media including the political press & not just the sports pages is fantastic. I personally don't think this would be the case if it wasn't for the fact we are holding the Olympics.

  • Comment number 2.

    "before I explore what might happen next to PE in the UK, let's have a short history lesson"

    Perhaps, it might be worth a history lesson for Matt that includes devolution - and the fact these partnerships, this decision, and this approach to PE, only applies in one part of the UK.

    The devil, as politicians say, is in the detail.

  • Comment number 3.

    Next step:

    1, State with clarity, for the benefit of the public, what exactly the supposed failings of the SSPs are. Allow the SSP representatives the chance to rebut those claims. Refuse to publish any slandering, force both sides to stick to the facts as they see them.
    2. From that, delineate the key bones of contention between the two sides and ask them to come up with an alternative that all sides can live with. Remove the top down imposition from a Tory Party which has promoted empowerment, localism and partnership above the Socialist top-down autocracy (do either actually really exist?)
    3. Put that compromise proposal out for public consumption and go with it if people are happy.
    4. Do all that by April 9th 2011. That being the end of this financial year.

    It can be done, if we really, really want sport for children to be great in this country.

    If all parties really want a solution, rather than an interminable argument and battle for media credits.

    And if the media can act as a force for good rather than competitive terrorists sniping from the bushes in every nook and cranny of our society.

    Think you're all up to that??

  • Comment number 4.

    As a 16 year old girl at an all girls school I will be devastated if the sports partnerships are cut. I love sport but the P.E department at my school are already neglected. Year 10 and 11 pupils at my school are not allowed out of school to represent the school in sports competitions in the borough that the SSPs arrange.
    Sadly not many of my fellow pupils (especially not my head teacher!) feel as passionately as I do about taking part in competitive sports. They don't see how important sport is to a child's well being.
    The SSPs are great, but I still think not enough is offered for school children: for my year group we can only compete with other schools in netball, badminton, cross country, athletics and tennis and sometimes rounders. Matches are never organised in football, cricket, table tennis etc. and I feel that, at a state school, I am missing out hugely and have to instead take part in sports outside of school.

  • Comment number 5.

    My elder son's school (a 'Sports College' coincidentally) has a new headmaster after the last one was deemed inadequate. The new headmaster was until recently a teacher and one of the deputy heads. My younger son's school is ruled by the iron fist of an intelligent but immovable headmistress (another daughter of Thatcher, albeit one with left wing leanings). I have spoken to both as my sons have special educational needs and I'm concerned to be honest that both will re-allocate the funds which should be for SEN to things which make the school look better (the Primary school is really keen on chess clubs etc). Given that heads of schools often have their own agendas - namely climbing league tables for the schools - this removal of ringfenced funding and trust on professional educators to double up as managers and accountants is an ideology, not a good idea. Why can't politicians just understand that removing the ring-fencing for sports funding will inevitably mean that at least some of the funding given for sports will be re-allocated to education (or more likely to extra-curricular activities for the brightest pupils).

  • Comment number 6.

    This Coalition Goverment primsed when elected to listen to the public about where cuts should and should not be made. If Mr Cameron, the same Mr Cameron who on an overseas trip is alleged to have seen a TOPS bag and said "that's a good idea we should introduce this" believes 620,000 people would feel so strongly about something he believes has been "a complete failure" then Mr Cameron is clearly deluded and would appear to have about as much integrity as the FIFA rabble he felt so hard done by last week.

    SSP's have been incredible in getting children playing sport. Not necessarily champions no, but the thousands and thousands of kids that will play leisure sport to stay fit, get healthy and build hobbies.

    What never been tracked or analysed is the difference sport makes to a child's self confidence, the difference it means in the learning of team work, of respect for each other and for an opponent, for the impact sport makes on a child's understanding of healthy living and most importantly for a child to get the buzz of winning and understand the pain of losing... these are life lessons that often cannot be taiught or learned in a classroom.

    De-ring fencing the money means it is lost in the cases where it is needed the most. A HEad can choose between a new TA ( full time) or some sports stuff afte school. Its a no brainer to many many schools.

    This is the big part though, for anyone who has been involved in SSP's you know the staff involved are incredible, they motivate encourage, they care. They have a special passion for the work they do and the difference they make. even now despite the fact most will be lost to redundancy they continue to work and continue to wnthuse kids across the country. I have been fortunate to work with SSP's in Bridgwater, Corby and Blackpool, 3 of the most deprived areas in the country and the work we have seen and the fabulous young people we have worked with is a jewel in the crown of outr education system.

    On April 223 2011 on St George's Day under in part the banner of SSP's we will take upto 1500 young people from across England who will have trained intensely in dance under the guidance of a top West end Choreographer to perform at Twickenham Satdium - the home of Rugby an 8 minute spectacular dance show. By the time they perform the pupils will have trainined solidly for 30 hours over 5 days, built fitness, set themselves huge personal targets and they will go out and have an experience they will never forget and that will potentially have an impact on them that could last many years.

    By 2012, the year we host an Olympic games... the chance to do this again will have gone.

    SSP's have to be saved plain and simple

    Liam O'Reilly

  • Comment number 7.

    To be honest, cuts are going to have to come in everywhere. They have already made me reconsider whether to apply to uni on a deferred entry due to the loss of a salary cap. I don't mean to sound harsh, but they just have to man up and face the fact that cuts are going to be coming in many divisions of the public sector. Sad, I know, but this is what the coalition has inherited from the buffoons under Brown and Blair.

    Ironically, even though they are campaigning for a good cause, they could have run a few five milers in that time, and thus got the necessary exercise that they are campaining for.

  • Comment number 8.

    What I find frustrating is that no-one is coming out with any suggestions of how the current SSP model can be ammended to incorporate a cut in funds. I work within the system and can put forward several ways that the system can be run with less funding.
    Furthermore, when people claim the system is too based on bureaocracy, that is because that is what we were tasked with to account for previous funding. If the coalition dont want us to do that then great, but that doesnt mean we cant still deliver all of the fantastic benefits.
    The beauty of the current system is that it is adjustable and can work with less funding as long as key posts are maintained. We can also tailor our work more to Health, competition, Olympics / Paralympics etc etc as directed by local head teachers.
    The scheme has always been locally directed by Head teachers and key stakeholders and if funding continues in some way then Heads will dictate what we work on - hence a locally managed programme. It is the Big Society in action with all the work done around volunteering and leadership, work with hard to reach groups and family engagement.
    If the funding is not ring fenced though schools simply will not have enough to go around and sport will always come second to teachers, books and lighting which with these cuts are the facts and difficulties facing schools.

  • Comment number 9.

    As the Partnership Headteacher of Burnham Market and Walsingham Primary Schools , I would like to promote the success of the North Norfolk Schools Sports Partnership. It has enabled children to learn new skills in new sports, like tag rugby, basketball, hockey, cricket, tennis, athletics, golf, fencing, archery, speedstacking and street dance. Children from the age of 4 to 11 years old have had these opportunities. Some have had the opportunity to represent the school at local and district level. Good sporting opportunities bring good health and active brains for young learners. Quite simply, without the School Sports Partnership, this would not be possible. Individual teachers may be able to lead a small amount of sport, but the School Sports Partnership brings a co-ordinated approach across a district.
    I was lucky to take my school tag rugby team (12 plays - boys and girls) to the Festival at Fakenham Rugby Club. We joined 10 other schools for an afternoon of excellent skills, plenty of excitement, good teamwork and friendly rivalry and competition. With the core coaching at the heart by the Schools Sports Partnership, it was such a success!
    If there is to be an 'Olympic Legacy, then it must come from these young people supported by their parents, their school, the Schools Sports Partnership and the local sports clubs. Be brave, Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education - change your minds and complete this U-turn in support of the UK's sporting future!

  • Comment number 10.

    I teach A level Sport and PE in a sports college and although I dont have a great deal to do with what SSP delivers I do see it doing a great deal of good. What SSC's have put together is excellent for kids of all ages and for me what Sports Colleges should be about. Unfortunately the real agenda behind all specialist schools is improving results and climbing league tables. I would imagine most Heads would suggest that sport, in all its forms, is beneficial for ones development, however, it dosnt help the position on the league table! For many teachers education has become an endless task of providing evidence. Most spend more time doing this than thinking about how to improve the teaching and learning experience for the students. If funding does change, I fear Heads will be more prone to look at ways to make the school look good for league tables/Ofsted and the like, rather than what is good for the students. We seem to have forgotten that they are the most important things in the education system not whether one school can produce statistics that make it look better than another!

  • Comment number 11.

    With all due respect to the young lady who has gathered the petition, done a wonderful job and taken this to number 10 where our appointed leaders banging this drum. Where are the MP's, the teachers and the sports leaders on this issue ?

    It takes a student to bring this to the nations attention and point out the way this has almost been slipped under the radar. It is essential that the SSP funding is reinstated not only to develop sporting stars of the future but also the health and well being of the nations youth. The amount of adults that have to turn to gyms, fitness trainers etc later in life to become fit is enourmus , these schemes instilled in them at young age would also put less strain on the NHS further down the line.

  • Comment number 12.

    School Sports Partnerships have another affect not mentioned in most comments in that they provide the link for sports clubs to provide specialist coaching in schools. This helps the clubs to advertise thier services to students and promote thier sport. Often SSP's provide the evidence needed by clubs to access governing body funding for local clubs. Volunteer coaches for sport visit schools via SSP contact as this saves the volunteers having to contact up to ten schools to arrange them!

  • Comment number 13.

    Hello all, thanks for reading. Here are some replies to your comments.

    Tiger Rose (1) - You're right, it's been a very effective campaign and one that has definitely been helped by the fact London 2012 is on the horizon. I also think our World Cup bid played a part too: why go to the trouble/expense of all that if you're not going to value grassroots sport? And that's how I see the link with London 2012 (and all the other big-ticket items in our "decade of sport") - big events at the elite end are there to raise sport's profile and provide a stage for role models, but that's no good if you're doing nothing at the other end of the spectrum. You need a coherent plan for all sport if you're going to change anything for the better.

    Peter_Keating72 (2) - A wee bit pedantic that, Pete, as I'm sure you're not going to tell me the history lesson doesn't apply to school sport in N Ireland, Scotland and Wales. But you are right that the SSP network is only operating in England so this funding decision doesn't apply to the other home nations (although I'm pretty sure similar ideas are being developed). That said, the Youth Sport Trust does operate in N Ire and Scot, so the £21m cut it has received will have some impact there.

    rjaggar (3) - Sounds pretty reasonable to me, particularly the honest assessment of what actually works and what can be improved/trimmed. That's what consultation is supposed to do and I don't think we had much consultation in this case.

    lea (4) - I'm really sorry to hear that but I think you have explained exactly why money does need to be ring-fenced for sport. I also think you have outlined why we should be doing more, not less, to encourage schools to take sport more seriously. All that said, I wonder if your school is actually that "bad" compared to many others in terms of the amount of competitive sport it offers. I'm surprised/disappointed that you're not playing competitive football but the encouraged to hear you're playing other schools at athletics, badminton, tennis and so on - that's a reasonable range. I wonder, though, how often you're playing other schools at those sports, because that has been one of the elements of this debate that has shocked me most. The government has been very selective in its use of statistics to "prove" its case that SSPs haven't improved amount of competitive sport played by schools. But a large reason for this is that the statistical bar is set very high: for example, at school 1st team level you would need 12 fixtures v other schools to be able to say you have provided "inter-school competition in that sport". I went to a pretty sporty school but I would be amazed if we actually managed to achieve 12+ fixtures in any sport other than our main one, which was rugby, and perhaps football. Our efforts in athletics, basketball, cricket, swimming et al would not have registered.

    Freddie Roach Ate etc (5) - Another excellent summary of why ring-fencing is important.

    liamp001 (6) - Excellent stuff. But to be fair to David Cameron, I think he has listened. Belatedly, perhaps, but the message has got through. The real problem has been at DfE. Distracted by the student fees row, academy schools and all the other pressing issues on their plate, they've rushed this through with very little thought. They needed to find savings and this one looked relatively uncontroversial. They were wrong and they've compounded that initial (perhaps understandable) mistake by burying their heads in the sand.

    Safe_Rafe (7) - I'm glad you made the point because it is an important part of the wider debate: the government needs to find savings and that means good programmes will be affected. What disappoints me about this cut, however, is that it was done very thoughtlessly, there was no effort made to sort the wheat from the chaff. And this reflects a much deeper lack of respect/understanding towards sport and why it matters, particularly at the grassroots level.

    Dan (8) - I couldn't agree more. And you make a good point about the red tape...if you want accountability for public money, an element of bureaucracy is inevitable. It's all about getting that balance right. That's what these "cuts" should have been about.

    StevenHales (9) - Hear, hear. Over to you, Mr Gove.

    thebridgebuilder (10) - Yep, another good reason to be wary of giving head teachers complete control of their finances....not that I necessarily blame them for worrying about league tables. That's what happens when you rank people's performance on very narrow measures. But let's not overburden the DfE too much, they've got enough on their plate this week.

    Desmar (11) - To be honest, the fault probably lies more with the media than politicians...they've had plenty to say about this subject in last few weeks. It has featured in some of the papers, broadsheets mainly, but it has perhaps been a bit under-reported. Sports writers have done their bit but part of the problem here is that the political writers have taken their lead from government and viewed this as a bit of a minority sport, who cares? This is fairly typical, I'm afraid.

    Scorer (12) - Absolutely, I should have mentioned that. The involvement of clubs has been crucial to this and is major step in breaking down the old division between what happens inside and outside the school gates. If the SSPs are to be saved and improved upon (and I really hope they are), I think this is an area that must be focused on. There's a lot of expertise and resource at clubs and getting more involved in school sport is surely a win-win.

    That's more than enough for me. Thanks again for reading.

  • Comment number 14.

    What are we doing as a nation, when coming up to the start of the biggest global event in the world (no not football but the Olympics), we are cutting state school sport.

    All the good work undertaken, and i agree every government department needs to take a share of funding cuts, we are just wasting it.
    A delagation of 5 young people set of to the House of Commons to speak to our MP about the proposed cuts. A Conservative one as well.
    The magic moment came for me and this about summed it all up was when after the MP had asked a primary pupil what she had done through the School Sports Partnership, the pupil duly told her all what she had done. It was pretty impressive.
    The lightbulb moment came when he then asked another student who was part of the Leadership academy this question, it goes something like this.

    MP "So ------ , you are not too long out of primary school, when you were at primary school, what sporting provision did you do other than your PE lessons?"

    Student"nothing, there wasn't anything else on offer" Lightbulb moment for the MP.

    You can't beat it from the horses mouth, kids just tell it how it is!


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