Right, let's don those kits and build some character

Robert Winder wonders whether pounds 100m in Lottery money will make our children team players
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The Independent Online
Breakfast can't be John Major's favourite meal of the day, what with the papers to wince over and everything. But it is a pretty safe bet that he smiled into his Shreddies yesterday, surrounded as he was by celebrities such as Kriss Akabusi, Bobby Charlton, Sir Colin Cowdrey and Rory Underwood. By all accounts, a large part of Mr Major's youth was taken up with fantasies to do with watching Colin Cowdrey smack open a boiled egg - the unmistakable summery sound of spoon on shell - and now they all came true at once. The sporting elite was invited to Downing Street for a muesli-Lucozade snack and a meeting with the Prime Minister, who was unwrapping his new drive to pour Lottery cash (up to pounds 100m) and lots of bureaucratic energy into British sport.

The centrepiece is a British Academy of Sport in the Midlands, designed to improve the performance of our national teams. But there will also be a big push to expand the role of sport in schools.

It is a substantial reversal of a government habit that has prevailed for decades. The leftish Labour parties of the Sixties and Seventies rushed to dismantle the odium of competitive games, and started flogging off school playing fields by the ton. This trend continued under Margaret Thatcher, who perhaps understood that the great thing competitive sport teaches you is that losing doesn't matter very much, and who anyway preferred chemistry labs to hockey pitches. Since 1982, 5,000 school pitches have been sold. Mr Major yesterday referred to these pitches as a "precious national asset" and gave the Sports Council the right to block future sales - a statement calculated to make his predecessor splutter. He even mentioned "extra performance payments" for teachers, though no doubt they'll believe that when they see it. "Sport is immensely important for children," he said. "It is character-building and above all it is fun."

Who could disagree? It is a shame he mentioned the character-building part - the creepy line usually peddled by the National Heritage Minister, Iain "Compulsory" Sproat. But sport certainly can be fun for those who like it, and the fierce erosion of athletic life in schools has been a significant loss. Mr Major would seem to be surfing with the wind this time: sport is booming. It has even, through advertising, acquired a kind of hi-tech, sexy glamour associated with trendy workout shoes, slinky Lycra and crowds of smiling young people quaffing fizzy drinks. So it is a shame that the emphasis is still on team sports.

"Sport teaches lessons that other things at school cannot teach," said Mr Sproat, "discipline, commitment, team spirit and good sportsmanship."

It all harks back to some ludicrous Victorian ideal of manly camaraderie, leadership, competition, cold showers and so on. These are precisely the terms that made generations of children wheedle an off-games slip and spend the afternoon eating Big Macs. If sport is all about fitness and fun, then what's wrong with windsurfing, aerobics or rollerblading?

There is an argument that team games are, of course, impossible to play on your own - and are therefore precisely the ones you need schools for. But sport is pointless if it isn't fun, so the options need to be as wide as possible. No one's character ever got built in a useful way by forcing them to freeze, miserable and frightened, on a mud-clogged pitch in February.

In a way it is surprising, and welcome, that the Government has not taken a bigger stride towards compulsory sport: from this autumn, schools will be required to offer just two hours per week. It is not, in all honesty, very much: one game of football followed by extra time and a character- building penalty shoot-out; or one world-record marathon. But the Prime Minister will be campaigning to persuade schools to up their provision to six hours.

The whole stategy might seem to go almost entirely against the grain of Conservative philosophy. But in these topsy-turvy political times, it almost makes sense for a Conservative government to pledge millions to protect facilities in state schools, and for a Labour opposition, as it did this week, to heckle that it is meaningless if it is not an obligatory part of the curriculum.

Perhaps the one really regrettable aspect of the initiative (and, as it happens, the most characteristically Tory feature) is the Major-Sproat belief that sport is a vital part of the national interest, rather than merely an enjoyable facility offered in the people's interest.

The new academy is certainly a headline-grabbing project: Australia's Cricket Academy has succeeded in turning out world-beaters. It can't be that hard to nab 10-year-olds and turn them into flag-waving gold medallists - the Soviet Union used to be good at it. But is it better to promote a small elite of winners whom the rest of us can watch on telly, or a nation of participants? This is another case of Lottery millions being funnelled straight from poor hopefuls to help a few would-be stars. Far better to spread facilities, coaching, equipment and encouragement as widely as possible, rather than buying new bats for the first eleven.

As for sports fields, they play an important role in the life of schools for hundreds of reasons that cannot be easily quantified in terms of the national interest: will the lower hospital bills that should reflect a generation of fitter, healthier children be offset by the greater number of broken ankles inflicted by character-building thugs in the opposition defence? And surely schools have a duty to provide, if they can, a grassy place where children can hide from the teachers, watch the clouds, read books banned by the school library, steal each other's cigarettes, make daisy chains and ogle the legs on the netball court or the rugby pitch. These things are precious national assets, aren't they?