Ashling O’Connor: Rebuilding the Olympic Stadium is all very well but, with proper support for school sport withdrawn, the legacy looks sorry indeed
School Sports Partnerships were cost-effective – until scrapped by Gove
Saturday 23 November 2013
With mud and concrete blanketing the running track that carried Mo Farah, Usain Bolt and David Rudisha to phenomenal feats at London 2012, the Olympic Stadium is a sadder-looking place these days.
The mound of recycled sludge is, thankfully, only temporary, providing a robust platform on which cranes will work to build the longest cantilevered roof in the world (84 metres at its deepest point).
Its condition is illustrative: the stadium is still a work in progress even after £430m of public money was spent on building it for the Games.
Yet the refurbishment programme – costing anywhere between £160m and £190m under an unsatisfactory financial disclosure policy, given the scale of taxpayer support – has a distinct sense of purpose.
In a complex operation with a tight timescale to accommodate the Rugby World Cup in the autumn of 2015, everyone knows their job.
There is a contractor for the removal of the 14 triangular floodlighting rigs that stand out within an otherwise unremarkable design, and there will be another one appointed to install the retractable seats covering the track when West Ham United are in residence.
Every function of the stadium once it is back in operation, from corporate hospitality to concert promotion, will be farmed out to service providers judged the best and most competitively priced in their field.
If only the legacy of participation was governed by such mission and control.
Whatever you think about whether the Games were worth £8bn, and whether “legacy” was an exercise in post- rationalisation, it is hard to argue that the Olympic Park is not an impressive place.
The board of the London Legacy Development Corporation is full of industry heavyweights and well chaired by Boris Johnson, the London Mayor who appears unprepared for every meeting he shambles into. He is anything but.
So 15 months on from the Olympic closing ceremony, the bricks-and-mortar remains of the Games seem in safe hands.
The Olympic Park will draw both those who missed out on the Games and those taking a nostalgic trip back to a one-off summer.
A well-managed events programme should see it wash its face commercially.
The intangible legacy of inspiration has always been harder to nail down and this week a Lords report warned that it was fast slipping away as the Government lost the focus that made the Games such a success.
Ministers consider it job done but the hard work of putting sport at the heart of everyday life has only just begun if the Games are to be worth anything to those too young to remember them.
The Government is simply not taking this seriously enough. While the Department for Culture, Media and Sport clings desperately to its very existence, the post of Sports minister was downgraded in the parliamentary pecking order under the last reshuffle.
Hugh Robertson was a minister of state. His replacement, Helen Grant, is a parliamentary under-secretary, the next rung down on the junior ministerial ladder, and her portfolio extends to equalities. It is an indefensible dilution of a role that long ago ceased to be a joke.
It makes no sense that there is someone in charge of the physical legacy and no one in charge of the pastoral. There is no ownership and, unlike the Olympic Park, no clear structure of who does what.
The legacy company would not dream of giving jobs on the stadium to non-experts – “While you’re up there doing the lighting could you sort out the new turf? Ta.” Nor would they opt for DIY.
So why do we think it’s OK to leave sports provision to the amateurs?
Oh wait, we used not to – they were called School Sports Partnerships and Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, scrapped their funding.
No disrespect to primary school teachers – they are heaven-sent, with a tolerance threshold far higher than mine – but they are generalists. Only a few have any interest in taking PE and fewer still have the skills.
Under the new system of giving £150m a year directly to schools, it would be a miracle if all primary heads were using their £9,250-a-year extra money on training teachers in order to retain specialist knowledge. If they continue to outsource ad hoc, as many still are, they will be no better off when the funding stops in July 2015.
While variable in their efficiency, SSPs, whereby regional co-ordinators worked across primary and secondary schools, were cost-effective at £160 million a year.
If you contracted one of many thriving firms (often run by Antipodeans incidentally), who charge £8.50 per child per session, it would cost £1.3bn a year to provide just one hour a week of professional coaching to every primary school pupil in the UK.
At the last count in 2009/10, under SSPs more than half of children were doing at least three hours a week of physical activity.
School sport is as important – nay much more – than the design of the stadium roof. Obese kids are as undesirable as white elephants.
We need to apply the same management rigour to the participation legacy. And, as is happening in Stratford, leave it to the professionals.
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