Reaching for Olympic gold

In just seven years, the world's greatest sporting spectacle comes to London. Is that enough time to reverse the decline in youth sport and produce home-grown champions? Steve McCormack investigates
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The Independent Online

Prominent in the rhetoric was the assertion that the Olympics would transform sport in the eyes of a generation of British children - and produce more athletes like Kelly Holmes. It would be a life-changing experience that, according to Tony Blair, would see millions more young people in Britain, and further afield, participate in sport and improve their lives as a result.

In a poignant piece of theatre to drive home that message, 30 East London schoolchildren went to Singapore to charm the Olympic decision-makers into choosing London. Those young faces were supposed to represent a big, multicultural slice of British youth that would grow up as healthy in body as they are in mind, in stark contrast to today's increasingly obese and inactive teenage generation.

So we have a noble and stirring aim. But can we do it? Can we turn inspiration into implementation? If this transformation is to have its roots anywhere, it has to be in schools. But most agree that, over the last two or three decades, the quantity and quality of school PE and sport has fallen. Among contributing factors are the declining willingness of teachers to organise team games outside school hours, the selling off of playing fields, the fact that sports days have disappeared from many schools' calendars, and the increasing pressure on teachers, particularly in primary schools, to spend more time on the three Rs.

However, the good news is that, three years ago, the Government implicitly acknowledged this decline and started to do something about it. A national strategy for school sport was launched, with nearly £1.5bn of funding, including Lottery money, allocated to continue the work through to 2008.

At the heart of this strategy are more than 350 secondary schools that have acquired specialist status as sports colleges, each one at the centre of what is called a school sports partnership, taking in all the other secondaries and primaries in its locality.

The idea is that all schools in the partnership benefit from the expertise at the centre. Money is provided for at least one teacher in every member school to spend time trying to raise the standards of PE and sports teaching within that school. After-hours sports activities are increased, and links with local sports organisations strengthened, to try to smooth the passage for teenagers to move from school sport and on to active club membership.

By next year, every school in England will be in one of these partnerships, each of which will receive £270,000 every year on top of the constituent schools' own main budgets.

Cumberland School Sports College, in East London, is the hub school for one of two partnerships in the London Borough of Newham, which will be home to well over half of the principal Olympic facilities in 2012.

Since the partnership began, every one of the seven member secondaries and 31 primary schools has, with Cumberland's help, added at least one extra out-of-hours sports club to its extra-curricular programme. Many are taken by qualified coaches, augmenting the efforts of the full-time teachers.

The partnership runs an annual festival of sport for all the local primary schools, with competition events such as netball, tag-rugby and a softball-style game called teeball, plus "come and try" activities for the less competitive or confident, including badminton and trampolining. This summer more than a thousand primary pupils took part in the event.

The process of successfully bidding for the Olympics has also already increased participation in sport across Newham. In the last two years, for example, the number of sports clubs has gone up by 50 per cent, from 138 to 210, and the number of qualified sports coaches in the borough has quadrupled.

Spurred on by the Olympic bid, the council has a programme designed to take sport to outlying housing estates. The idea is for coaches to organise a range of sporting activities on open spaces or in community halls, in the knowledge that some young people may lack the confidence, or know-how, to go to a leisure centre some distance away.

"This has been a great success because it has engaged traditionally hard-to-reach kids in organised sport," explains Nick Williams, one of Newham's Olympic officers.

The council is also laying on an "Olympic summer of sport" across the borough, where schoolchildren, during the holidays, are able to have free taster sessions in 21 Olympic sports. Last year, children took part in 64,000 such sessions.

While you'd expect the areas right on the doorstep of the Olympic sites to have grasped the school-sport partnership idea with greatest enthusiasm, most observers agree that the network of partnerships across the country has begun to lay the foundations of a widespread improvement in how PE and sport is taught, and the degree to which schoolchildren and teenagers continue to participate outside normal lesson times.

Steve Grainger, the chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust, the umbrella body for all sports partnerships in England, is convinced a corner has been turned. "I believe the infrastructure being put in place is going to reverse the decline in school sport," he says. "But it will take time."

At the Physical Education Association of the UK, which represents most school PE teachers, the chief executive, John Matthews, believes the timing of the new partnerships is ideal for an Olympics in seven years. "I think we are now extremely well-placed. We've already got 60 per cent of the country covered, which is fantastic."

But there are those who question whether this will be enough to engineer the transformation heralded by ministers. They point to the rather modest aim in the national strategy of ensuring that every schoolchild, by 2010, receives two hours a week of high-quality PE. That, alone, is not going to turn a generation from couch potatoes into healthy athletes, they argue. Even those broadly optimistic about the future highlight the fact that most primary teachers, in three years at training college, still get next to no instruction in how PE should be taught.

Eileen Marchant, the general secretary of the British Association of Advisers and Lecturers in PE, says that this is a growing concern, as so many children these days lead inactive lives with little outdoor play. "A lot of children at school haven't developed the ability to run, jump, stop, start and balance," she explains.

In an inconvenient coincidence, a couple of days after London celebrated winning the Games, Ofsted produced a report on school sport in which it identified many of these weaknesses.

While conceding that the strategy was generally improving sport provision, the report found that, even in schools that are part of sport partnerships, "the proportion of very good teaching was disappointingly low." Inspectors found many primary teachers cancelling PE lessons in favour of other school events and preparations for SAT tests. They also bemoaned the fact that, in too many schools, the paucity of facilities meant gyms and sports halls were frequently taken out of use during exam time.

The manager of Cumberland's partnership, Jean Wright, who has decades of experience in school sport, hints clearly that facilities are, potentially, the Achilles heel of school sport. She sees no reason why every secondary should not have a purpose-built sports hall, something currently only a distant aspiration.

"I'm hoping there's going to be more investment to improve school facilities," she says, "particularly in inner London, where too many schools have very little grass, limited playground space and schools halls used for PE."

Facilities, too, are pinpointed as a key concern by Tim Payton, a former sports policy guru for the Labour Party, and now a consultant for the AS Biss sports advocacy organisation. "Sport has been woefully underfunded for decades. Billions of pounds are needed to get local clubs and local authority facilities up to scratch," he argues. The Football Association recently commissioned a survey that found that it would take £2bn to upgrade local football pitches and changing rooms around the country to a serviceable level.

This is widely recognised as a key obstacle preventing young people continuing any form of sport after leaving school. At the moment, only 25 per cent do any form of regular sport once they've left school - hardly a sign of a young generation inspired by the Olympic ideal.

School sport partnerships are having some success channelling more teenagers towards clubs away from the school gates, but consolidating such introductions into long-term increased participation is a far harder task.

So school sport is well placed to be able to capitalise on the Olympic enthusiasm that is sure to grow in the minds of tomorrow's teenagers. But it is by no means yet a certainty that there will be enough quality teachers and facilities for their dreams to be turned into reality.