The Last Word: Cabinet dunces fail the test on benefits of school sport

Studies show it improves learning and reduces obesity, but government thinking dictates cuts

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The Independent Online

Instead of being inspired, a generation is being betrayed. This may seem a perverse accusation on Easter Sunday, when children traditionally eat their body weight in chocolate, but they are being ignored rather than indulged.

Remember those days of grace before this eternal winter descended? We were blinded by the sheen of medals, seduced by images of ambition and achievement. Anything seemed possible, and our children were encouraged to dare to dream.

Suddenly those optimists, enticed into expecting something better, are as forlorn as spring lambs in a snowstorm. The cynics have seized the initiative and are distorting the debate. They suggest the notion of an Olympic legacy is risible and should be quietly forgotten, like an election promise.

They argue that only fools and fantasists believe something as ephemeral as physical activity can counteract such profound social problems as childhood obesity or community cohesion. We are fated to remain the fat men of Europe, an increasingly sedentary nation at odds with itself.

The mood of acquiescence, despite such arrant nonsense, has emboldened the apologists for a system which enshrines the managed decline of sporting facilities and accepts the ideologically driven degradation of school sport. Politicians impose their agendas with ease and condescension. They know better than most that British sport suffers from witless, self-congratulatory leadership. There is an absence of will and imagination, plus a chronic inability to accept a huge chance has been lost.

The battle against obesity is not a sexy subject. Its sound bites are forbidding, condemnatory and do not fit the narrative favoured by those who excuse the lavishing of public money on the likes of West Ham United. Even £630 million, the price of a remodelled Olympic Stadium, is loose change in the bigger picture. It is estimated that obesity will cost the NHS £10 billion a year by 2050. Complementary expenditure is expected to reach nearly £50bn.

Costs incurred by inactivity have increased by 22 per cent in the past five years. Primary care trusts have, on average, to find an additional £6.2m a year to deal with related health conditions such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Medal-winning programmes which provide photo-opportunities and a fleeting feelgood factor are sustained while schools are expected to provide a balanced sporting education on £8,000 a year. The Government are not heeding their chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, who insists: "If physical activity was a drug it would be regarded as a miracle."

I have no wish to make a party political point, even if the current clique of ministers, Michael Gove in Education, Jeremy Hunt in Health and Maria Miller in Culture, are deeply unimpressive. A blueprint for progress exists, and was comprehensively ignored when it was outlined to Andy Burnham, health secretary in the last Labour regime.

A 17-year study of 19,000 students in Naperville, west of Chicago, concluded that "Zero Hour", a revolutionary PE programme based on the development of aerobic fitness through regular gym-based exercise, minimises obesity and maximises educational attainment. The study found that students working at 80-90 per cent of maximum heart-rate for an hour at the start of the school day developed a state of heightened awareness which resulted in a 17 per cent improvement in reading and comprehension.

A follow-up project in Titusville, a small industrial town in Pennsyl-vania, found test scores of 550 students rose from below the state average to 17 per cent above it in reading, and 18 per cent above it in maths. The so-called TriFit system, which set targets for heart rate, blood pressure and body-fat percentages, helped to reduce obesity rates from 30 to 3 per cent.

The programme has been adopted by the Obama administration, but gathers dust on a Whitehall shelf. That, as every schoolboy should know, is where good ideas go to die.

Bravery of a man with life on hold

A brave man lies paralysed and tries to be positive for the sake of his young family. His sport is confronted by a savage irony as it faces a defining week.

Confirmation of the serious neck injury suffered by the amateur jockey JT McNamara will cast a pall over the build-up to Saturday's Grand National. Teaforthree, the horse on which he won the National Hunt Chase for a second time at Cheltenham last year, is among the fancied runners in the main event at Aintree.

These are testing days for horseracing, whose governing body have employed a Westminster lobbying firm in a bid to be more proactive in shaping public consciousness.

Animal-rights protests will, understandably, be seen in a different perspective because of McNamara's plight. The Irish jockey fractured the C3 and C4 vertebrae in his neck in a fall 17 days ago.

He never turned professional, partly because his natural weight of around 10st 7lb would have obliged him to spend time wasting in the sauna.

His business, breaking and training young horses, is in the balance.

He is supported by the prayers of his peers and anyone who admires his humanity in adversity.

You have to be fit to be a twit

Judging by the tone of some of the advance coverage, today's University Boat Race is an extension of the Upper Class Twit of the Year contest. The event is undoubtedly anachronistic. But I once spent three months shadowing a Cambridge crew and can confirm the rowers are exceptional athletes who do not deserve to be demeaned.