Glen Smale: Schools need a lesson from South Africa

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I grew up in South Africa, where the tennis racket, the cricket bat and the football were as commonplace as the sunshine, so you can imagine my shock, when I settled in England, to find that school sports were dead on their feet. After all, I was always led to believe that the English invented sports such as rugby and cricket, and that tennis at Wimbledon was as British as tea and scones.

As a child, sport was a way of life for me, and my parents fought daily battles to get me inside the house to do my homework. My school offered a dozen sports all year round, with up to 18 teams per sport. Sporting achievements were always recognised and rewarded at school, even where the sport concerned was a non-school sport; I represented my province as a golfer at 16. This healthy competitive edge proved invaluable later, as I started university and then work, where it opened doors for me, especially in interviews.

In 1999, I moved to England with my own family and two children, who had both been very sporty at their primary school in Johannesburg. They tried to settle into a sports group at their new secondary schools in Buckinghamshire, but it wasn't easy. There were few sports offered, and even those that were offered were infrequent. As a result, neither of my children continued their sports with any commitment, and my son had to join a local cricket club to continue with his main interest. The club, however, was run by fathers who had personal commitments of their own, so that also proved to be irregular.

The reality of the problem began to dawn on me: the teachers at my children's school were not able to coach a variety of sports after school owing to the pressures of teaching. You have to look hard to find a government initiative that encourages sport today, and children inevitably find the sofa or the computer more attractive than the sports field. The dilemma facing British schools is unlikely to go away on its own, so a serious effort needs to be made to address the coaching vacuum if schoolchildren are to be reintroduced to sports and competition.

With this in mind, I wrote to my children's head teacher offering to set up a Saturday-morning golf coaching programme, even volunteering to source the necessary equipment from sports manufacturers. After a few months, and having had no response, I telephoned the head to request a meeting. The reaction? "Don't call us, we'll call you."

My second proposal was designed to alleviate the shortage of general sports coaches at the school by bringing in students from local universities who were training to be teachers or sports coaches. This system has solved the coaching shortfall at many South African schools, with the student coaches travelling to the school concerned, rather than the school having to transport children around the town. It's a win-win situation, because it offers the students the chance to make some extra cash, and provides them with good experience before entering full-time teaching or coaching. The benefits to the schools are obvious.

The head turned down this proposal too, and soon moved on to another school. I thought a new head might give me a fresh opportunity to put forward my ideas, but after a repeat performance, I gave up.

Healthy competition through sport has incalculable benefits, and the positive impact on a child's development in terms of personal achievement, confidence and general health is beyond question.

The media reports daily on the growing problem of child obesity in the United Kingdom. The increasing pressure on the NHS to cope with the health of the nation means that it makes sense to improve the health of young people, thus relieving the burden on the system when they reach adulthood.

With school playgrounds across the country being scrapped to make way for housing and other developments, it's little wonder that British sport has been left behind on the international stage. The Olympics are only six short years away, so now would be a good time to introduce some lasting improvements to the school sports coaching system, a move that would show the host nation in a favourable light. By diverting some much-needed funding in this direction, Gordon Brown might just be surprised at how much money future Chancellors could save on healthcare costs in their budgets.

There is no reason why a simple and proven coaching initiative that benefits schools, children and student teachers cannot be rolled out in Britain. The financial cost of the South African student coaching system is minimal, but the benefits are enormous.