Can Kelly Holmes 'do a Jamie' with school sports?

The new school sports tsar, Kelly Holmes, wants to push children to get active. But with PE teachers and proper equipment in short supply, she has her work cut out preparing pupils for the 2012 Olympics

That was confirmed last week when Holmes, double Olympic gold medallist, was appointed the first National School Sport Champion. She accompanied the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, and her counterpart at Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, to a north London comprehensive to be photographed with some of the school's best basketball players.

But as teams of civil servants and spin-doctors choreographed her every move, it became clear that the double gold medallist from Athens would not be in quite the same position as Oliver to do a number on school sport.

We are not likely to see Holmes expose the dire shortcomings of school sports facilities, or highlight the way that PE has been squeezed off the timetable at many schools because of the dominance of league tables. But Holmes is nevertheless a powerful catch, with impeccable sporting credentials, and a big public profile.

She proved her appeal effortlessly last week, when, within the space of 10 minutes in a school gym, she established a closer rapport with a group of 15- and 16-year-olds than the ministers could hope to achieve in 10 years. But she knows that she needs to reach much, much further than the minority of British teenagers already hooked on sport.

"I want to see real change," she declared, "and for more children to take part in more activities. My first task is to try to inspire and motivate as many young people as possible, so that sport becomes part of their day-to-day lives." It's a laudable aim, but how realistic is it? And what needs to happen to give her a chance of success?

Four years ago, the Government acknowledged the decline in school sport that had taken place during the 1980s and 1990s by launching a new national strategy, backed by £1.5bn of taxpayers' and Lottery money. The funding was chiefly to support the setting up of hundreds of school sport partnerships - groups of schools tapping into the expertise of specialist sports colleges. There are now 411 of these partnerships, and the Government has promised that by the end of this year, the network will take in every primary and secondary school in England.

Central to Holmes's role will be visiting schools around the country - two visits a month for a year is the contractual obligation so far - to highlight how these partnerships are increasing the quantity and quality of school sport. She is likely to hear that the strategy has already had a positive effect.

"The school sport partnerships have been a fantastic development," says Paul Gower, head of PE at Fullbrook School, a mixed comprehensive in Surrey with 1,700 pupils.

Gower has been able to expand the range of after-school clubs, and one of his PE staff, given the title of school sport coordinator, has been released from teaching at Fullbrook for two days a week to visit local primaries and help teachers there, almost none of whom are PE specialists, to improve their PE teaching.

This is urgently needed, given that a recent Ofsted report found widespread instances of low quality PE teaching in primary schools, and frequent examples of cancelled PE lessons because of shortage of facilities or space on the timetable.

At the Physical Education Association of the UK, which represents most school PE teachers, the chief executive John Matthews sees the improvement of primary teachers' confidence and expertise in teaching PE as a priority, if there's to be any large-scale rise in participation among teenagers. "If children have a positive experience at a young age, that's going to be a good thing for their motivation as they get older," he argues.

But many insiders question whether, without a large amount of extra investment, the school sport partnership alone can radically improve primary PE teaching. John Stewart, head of a north London primary school, and a fierce advocate of the benefits of school sport inside and outside the curriculum, thinks the school sport coordinator role is very limited. " One guy for two days a week, spread around eight primary schools: what can they really do?" he asks.

Stewart and Gower agree that, for a substantial new wave of pupils to be attracted to activities that they might then pursue for years, an army of qualified coaches are needed to work in schools, mainly outside the normal school day, to augment the efforts of permanent teaching staff.

These coaches are necessary because curriculum demands, as well as the finite number of sport specialisms held by any one individual, will always limit the degree to which a school can offer enough opportunities to create the "sporting nation" foreseen by Holmes. "We need the ability to offer the widest range of activities, to reach increased numbers of kids," explains Gower.

Almost as important for Stewart is to increase the opportunities for school teams to compete with one another in organised leagues and tournaments, across more sports. He is the president of the Camden School Sports Association (CSSA), which runs inter-school football and netball competitions for 32 local primary schools in north London.

The CSSA is unique in London, and the paucity of such organisations elsewhere in the capital is underlined by the fact that Stewart's own school has to take part in CSSA events because his local education authority, Islington, has no such infrastructure. "There are just not enough opportunities for school age children to do organised sport," he argues.

One widely accepted obstacle is the relatively impoverished pool of facilities available to state-educated pupils. A recent survey carried out by the Independent Schools Council highlighted the vast gulf in time allocated to sport, and spent in on-site facilities, between state and private schools. The survey pointed out that the independent sector, which accounts for only seven per cent of pupils in the UK, was responsible for the schooling of half of all British medal winners at the Athens Olympics. What does that say for lost potential in the state sector?

The facilities issue peeped over the parapet at last week's launch of Holmes's new role. When she asked the comprehensive school teenagers what sports they'd like to do that were not available at present, one girl said: "Swimming. There's nowhere to do it round here." The listening ministers said nothing.

So, despite the genuine good intentions of Britain's most accomplished athlete of recent times, and the undoubted fact that a corner of sorts has been turned in school sport provision, talk of a transformation appears premature.

Unless the availability of coaches and organised competitions increases, and state school children get easier access to better facilities, the dream of the 2012 Olympics taking place in a country where sport is an integral part of the culture may just melt away. The race is on.

Can we learn lessons from Japan?

If British schools want to raise their game, they could start by looking at the prime place given to sport in Japanese education. Rhian Parry, from North Wales, got married and moved to Japan in 1986. Her two children, Cai, aged 11, and Mena, aged eight, go to the local state school, in Choshi, east of Tokyo, which Parry describes as typical for the locality.

The extent of sport offered there is staggering. On top of two or three timetabled gym periods every week, and swimming lessons in the school pool in the summer, there are sports activities before and after school every day. This term it's athletics; in the summer there's a choice between basketball and baseball; and in the autumn term there's what's called Marathon Club, which culminates in a whole-school long-distance race in December. Training for this involves all pupils running round the school twice a day for at least half an hour.

Although participation in the clubs is optional, Parry says that almost all pupils participate, partly because of peer pressure. Her son, Cai, is not a naturally gifted athlete, but he nevertheless enjoys the activities, particularly the running.

"He has a real sense of achievement when he improves his times, and spontaneously wants to go to bed early so he can be in good condition for the next morning's training," she says.

Parry's early doubts concerning the regimented nature of some of the activities have largely disappeared as she's seen her children experience them as nothing but fun. "I now wish I'd had more structured sport and more qualified teachers when I was their age," she says. "Maybe I wouldn't be such a blob as I am now."

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