Give children a sporting chance

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Virtually no one now defends the selling off of school playing fields. The policy introduced under the Conservatives of allowing local authorities to sell off fields to developers has reduced the opportunities of a generation of children to take part in outdoor sports. Not only have the effects of this policy been disastrous, but the rationale was flawed too. The financial gains to the local authorities that took advantage of this de-regulation were strictly short term. It was bad value for money.

Virtually no one now defends the selling off of school playing fields. The policy introduced under the Conservatives of allowing local authorities to sell off fields to developers has reduced the opportunities of a generation of children to take part in outdoor sports. Not only have the effects of this policy been disastrous, but the rationale was flawed too. The financial gains to the local authorities that took advantage of this de-regulation were strictly short term. It was bad value for money.

Labour in opposition promised to put an end to this practice. A law introduced in 1998 required each application for a proposed sale to be put before the Education Secretary. The number of sales decreased, but it still goes on. The Government's latest proposals, which would impose even tighter restrictions on the sale of school fields, are an exercise in locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. Nothing can bring back the 5,000 playing fields that have been signed away since 1981.

The neglect of competitive sports in schools is deeply worrying. Only two-thirds of children do the recommended two hours of physical education a week. The Commons Health Committee warned recently that obesity in children will have catastrophic effects on the nation's health and cited a lack of exercise as a major contributory factor.

The Conservative leader, Michael Howard, tried to make some political capital out of the situation by arguing that fears of litigation among teachers is partly responsible. He claims that our compensation culture has made it too risky for teachers to supervise rough-and-tumble sports. The Tories also think that "politically correct" educationalists dislike competitive sports on principle. But this is a red herring. Teachers are becoming less involved in school sports because they are poorly paid and overburdened with paperwork. There are also forces in society, such as the popularity of computer games, which are making children less inclined to take part.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for making sport a key part of the curriculum and providing the proper facilities. This requires not just preventing the sale of playing fields, but also clearing land to create more. On great sporting occasions, such as the Olympics, society seems to come together and agree that sport and exercise are important. But it is no good having good intentions once every four years. Sport in schools must be taken seriously all year round.

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