From inspiration to inaction: If we nurture school and grassroots sport, the entire country will benefit

There is a grim predictability about the dramatic decline in children taking exercise

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The Independent Online

There have been so many dramatic and turbulent events in the past week that you would be forgiven for missing a story that is unsurprising, even mundane, by comparison. Unsurprising because it sounds so familiar, and indeed there is a grim predictability and inevitability in its nature.

Figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre showed that the proportion of boys aged 13 to 15 who take the recommended amount of exercise is falling dramatically – in 2008, it was 28 per cent; in 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, this had halved to 14 per cent. For girls, the figure fell from 14 per cent to 8 per cent during the same period. There is every sign that, despite the 2012 Olympics, the next figures will be worse still: a separate report published last week, to coincide with School Sport Week, found that one in four youngsters believes playing computer games counts as exercise, even though only a tiny proportion involve real physical activity. The report, by the Youth Sport Trust, is called “The Class of 2035” and points to an increasingly inactive future for children – with, in turn, health and social implications for later in life.

For all ages, participation in sport has fallen across the country since 2012. It is not for want of inspirational sportsmen and women: besides all of those 2012 heroes, we still have a British champion at Wimbledon this week at the top of his game, and England’s women were playing in the quarter finals of the World Cup last night. It is a sad fact that, 10 years on from London winning the bid to host an Olympics which was supposed to inspire a generation of children to take up sport, our youngsters are inheriting a legacy of sofa-bound inactivity. I would go further and argue that the Olympics was used as a panacea, an excuse for doing nothing else.

The government, local authorities, schools and sporting organisations believed the very existence of the Games in 2012 would be enough, that there would be a natural uplift in participation, and they didn’t need to make any extra effort. Instead, the opposite has happened. The Government does not take mass participation in sport seriously – which was why it tried to axe protection for funding for school sport during the last parliament, before cutting it from £162m to £150m a year.

Sport remains a subdivision of the Department of Culture, the old “ministry of fun”, yet its impact on society is deadly serious – affecting the economy, health, employment, social inclusion, crime, education, diplomacy. I can think of no MP better qualified to do the job of Sports minister than Tracey Crouch, a qualified football coach and sport obsessive. After being appointed last month, Crouch said she planned to launch a fundamental rethink of sports policy, working with the departments of Health and Education, which is an excellent sign. But the Prime Minister should go further and make Minister for Sport a cabinet position, liaising with all departments.

At school, kindling a passion for sport should start at primary level. Every primary school should have a dedicated head of sport to inspire youngsters and nail the lie that some children can’t “do” sport – you have only to look at Martine Wright, the 7/7 survivor and Paralympian interviewed on page 30 to realise this isn’t true. Private schools with acres of playing fields that lie idle in the summer holidays should be incentivised to open them up for football, tennis and athletics camps – solving thousands of childcare headaches into the bargain. If we can nurture school and grassroots sport, the entire country will benefit.

Cameron has his own Ed Stone

It was revealed last week, thanks to some good old-fashioned journalism by a Bloomberg reporter, that the apple tree – a Langley pippin – sponsored by David Cameron on land in the path of a new Heathrow runway has died. I would love to know what happened to the Cameroon silver birch sapling planted by a journalist colleague of mine on a Devon hillside many years ago. At what now must seem like a parody, journalists were handed saplings in hemp bags at a “Vote Blue, Go Green” press conference with Cameron in April 2006. My silver birch was entrusted to a Liberal Democrat and later died, in the sort of political symbolism you couldn’t make up, but I imagine the one in Devon is still going strong, in the wild. Just as Ed Miliband found with the Ed Stone, empty gestures in politics are rarely successful.

Osborne knew of train trouble

Speaking of empty gestures, the Northern Powercut – the shelving of the upgrade of rail lines in the north of England – is a scandal, and some blame should be levelled at Network Rail for mishandling costs. But doesn’t George Osborne, who has made the Northern Powerhouse the centre of his Budgets and Autumn Statements for the past few years, owe commuters from Bedford to Leeds an apology, particularly as it is clear that ministers knew things weren’t going to plan well before the election?

Clooney turns heads

The presence of Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer and, thanks to her marriage to George Clooney, international celebrity, in the gallery at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday caused a ripple of excitement among us scruffier types on the press benches. Clooney was there to lobby Cameron over the imprisonment of Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives. So was it wrong, in this context, to point out how glamorous Clooney is? I was taken to task on Twitter for making this point, but, straight after PMQs, I spoke to a female MP, also a lawyer, who said that Clooney is a fantastic role model for girls and young women interested in a career in law. Clooney herself doesn’t seem to mind being feted for her style – given the exclusive coverage she gave to US Vogue for her wedding. Can’t we simply celebrate a woman for being a successful lawyer and having a great wardrobe?

Twitter: @janemerrick23