Ways the lottery can improve national health

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The Independent Online
CONSIDERING that the production of young citizens with keen minds and healthy bodies appears no longer to be the ambition of most state schools - minds, yes, bodies, no - we might as well keep the kids home and send their brains to school in a jar.

Until medical science allows such a separation of priorities, however, we are stuck with a system that will tackle only half the desired job and seems determined to squeeze the last drops of traditional sweat-inducing sports out of the curriculum. It is so alarming a prospect that even some of those with bitter memories of the indignities and discomforts involved support the battle being fought by the Minister for Sport, Iain Sproat, to get competitive sport reinstated as a compulsory part of school life.

No one who has followed the systematic reduction of school sport over the past 10 years or so will give him much chance of succeeding on his own. The Education Secretary, John Patten, has so far rejected his colleague's demands and intends to stay with the measly average of the hour or so now being devoted to physical recreation each week. Patten and his predecessors have already had enough trouble with the national curriculum to want any further confrontation with the teachers.

Only the will of the nation plus a large lump of the new lottery profits will assist Sproat in his attempt to preserve sport as an important part of the education of most of our children. Unfortunately, the nation as represented by the cabinet are a dead loss when it comes to providing sporting role models.

The Prime Minister flies the flag for cricket and Chelsea but is hardly likely to be the catalyst for causing a chubby first-former to enter the fray on some field of honour. The rest of the government's top echelons might encourage interest in careers in asset- stripping, computer dating and the new business of arms dealing but as examples of what a vigorous sporting life can do for you, they fall well short of inspiring. The only realistic hope lies in the new Department of National Heritage, which not only houses Sproat but also has responsibility for the directions in which the lottery money is to be flung.

They've talked loosely about sport's ration being used to finance the building of new facilities but it would be far more imaginative to invest heavily in providing sporting opportunities for schoolchildren either in or out of school. If a fit and healthy school population is not our heritage, then what is?

School sport reached its present state through a steady sequence of events. 'Loony left' education authorities are credited with decrying competitiveness in school games and many physical educationalists of more balanced backgrounds preach the same gospel. Of more immediate effect was the bitter aftermath of the teachers' strike in the mid-1980s and the introduction of contracts that did not include supervising sport outside schools hours.

A century of devoted and largely unsung work by dedicated teachers organising school teams began to perish, and although there are many still performing the task with willing hearts, this free service to the nation is dying out and many of those in charge of education are determined never to see it flourish again.

Less than a third of British schools even bother to meet the two hours per week PE target which in itself is the lowest allocation in Europe. And the more sport shrinks, the more excuse for hard-pressed authorities to sell off sports grounds. In the past 10 years, 70 per cent of state schools have undergone a drop in extra- curricular sporting activity, and 60 per cent are now experiencing a drop in PE funding. Most children leave school unable to swim, let alone with a sporting skill.

As sport dies out almost completely in parts of the state system, it booms in the public schools, who tackle their team games with all the inter-school rivalry that was once the norm for everyone. School sport is swiftly becoming the province of the privileged.

Obviously, PE teachers are not to blame for the brief time they can spend with pupils and there is a limit to the fitness or the interest they can inspire in one or two periods a week. There is a clear duty on parents and the children to see that physical activity is continued out of school hours. But modern living induces laziness and last week's revelation about the dangerously unhealthy diets of most of our schoolchildren shows how urgently they need the self-regard that sport can help to bring.

Recent lack of international success in our main sports is also put down to the decline in school sport. True or not, this should hardly be a matter for complaint by the sports concerned. The schools' priority should be to produce fit kids, not to supply superstars to sports which are rich enough to provide more help at the grass-roots level.

Sproat can abandon his attempt to persuade schools to readmit the team games; they are locked in, by finance as well as attitude, to their present policy. But he can attain more for the nation than any of his predecessors by attaching to the state system a supply of help and encouragement that could revolutionise the sporting opportunities available to schoolchildren in the most depressed of schools.

The national lottery could not be more timely. The allocation of a significant proportion of the anticipated multi-millions to paying teachers overtime, re-employing retired teachers, or recruiting parents and others to form a network of team organisers to operate outside school hours could restore sport to its former place in school life. All sports authorities, large or small, could also help with the costs, as well as guidance and facilities.

There would have to be supervision from professional PE people and the scheme would need to be complementary to other school activities but no school could surely resist rekindling the spirit and pride that is missing from so many of our schoolchildren while introducing them to games they can play long after they leave school.

It would be a brave step and involve considerable organisation but the alternative is to watch sport continue to die in state schools. To what better cause could a sporting lottery be devoted?

LAST year it was suggested that England's being a bigger country than the others ought to give them the major share of TV fees for the Five Nations' Championship. For some reason, the idea has not surfaced recently.

Until last Friday, that is. BSkyB have apparently fallen out of the running in the race for rugby's TV contract but have made an offer to show highlights. England would get 85 per cent of the fee and Scotland, Wales and Ireland five per cent each because 90 per cent of the satellite dishes are on English drainpipes. Apart from the fact that many Celts have the misfortune to live in England, it would surely be fairer to base the share-out on which countries are providing the best highlights.