Primary school sport must be boosted to prevent a generation of children growing up less fit than their parents, according to Sebastian Coe, the man behind London’s extraordinarily successful Olympic Games.
Lord Coe, the chairman of the London organising committee and a former double Olympic gold medallist, was speaking in the wake of a row about the Government cutting fundign for school sport and scrapping a target of two hours of school sport a week for children. David Cameron was criticised earlier in the day for claiming that many schools were focused on “Indian dance” rather than competitive sport.
Lord Coe said: “It is very, very important that we do everything we can to maintain high quality physical education in schools, and in primary schools it is particularly important because it is my instinct that if you haven’t got that pattern and love of sport and pattern of exercise by year 10 or 11, it is going to be quite hard to introduce that to 14- and 15-year-olds with the cluttered landscape that you are then competing against.
“It is really important that we promote competitive support in schools. It is very important that we recognise that has to be underpinned by good quality physical education and by getting people into patterns of exercise.
“We have to recognise that we are likely to be the first generation of parents that are fitter than our kids. There are some big challenges out there and they are not easily captured.
“This is a complicated debate, neither black nor white. Everybody recognises that giving young people competitive outlet through sport is a very good thing. I do genuinely believe that young people who play sport at a competitive level, sensibly controlled, sensibly organised, that has to be a good thing. It will teach them to win, it will teach them to lose with dignity and magnanimity – all the things you want. It’s a pretty good metaphor for life.”
The success of the Games and a British team that has won its most medals for over a century has sparked a debate over the place of sport in schools, its importance and how it should be funded. The Government has struggled to advance a coherent idea or strategy in recent days. Under the Coalition, funding directed towards coaching sport in schools has been cut, as have measures such as free swimming for young people.
Yesterday David Cameron dismissed the previous government’s target of two hours of sport a week as “piece of pointless Whitehall box-ticking.” Boris Johnson, though, wants two hours a day of compulsory sport.
Mr Cameron said: “The trouble we have had with targets up to now, which was two hours a week, is that a lot of schools were meeting that by doing things like Indian dance or whatever, that you and I probably wouldn’t think of as sport, so there’s a danger of thinking all you need is money and a target.”
Lord Coe, a former Conservative MP, believes there will be cross-party support for any measures designed to capitalise on the interest the Olympics has sparked. No previous Olympic Games has led to a subsequent rise in sporting participation in the host nation.
Lord Coe said: “I hope that cross-party debate is a grown up debate. The one thing that politicians of any hue now recognise is there is an appetite for that. People have voted with their feet in millions to support British sport. There are sports out there that have never been so popular. There is an appetite.”
Mr Cameron’s renewed attack on teachers again sparked off a furious row with both heads and teachers’ leaders.
Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, described the Prime Minister’s comments as “ill-informed and unfair and failing to recognise the huge contribution that many teachers make towards sport in schools”.
“We all want to build on the success of our Olympics team and we understand that schools have an important part to play in this,” he added.
However, he said the government had removed the funding for “the most successful school sports scheme” - the £162 million a year School Sports Partnership.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: “It ill-behoves the Prime Minister to dismiss money as an issue in school sport.
“Cutting the School Sports Partnership was frankly an act of vandalism and left many schools without the additional supportthey had found so helpful.
“If the Prime Minister were to acquaint himself more thoroughly with the national curriculum and with practice in schools he would congratulate state school teachers on the great job they are doing in competitive sport as well as in in all forms of activity which encourage fitness.”
The Labour leader Ed Miliband said it was “no good” blaming teachers for everything. “One of the things we have got to do is to look at the successful experience of the School Sports Partnership - which this government has been so sceptical about and let’s build on it,” he said.