Dear Prime Minister (Sunak of Truss): Please arrange sports in schools | Sport

forge Sinterklaas. If you really want something for Christmas this year, be it better social care or lower utility bills, the proper procedure is to write Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Last month, Lotte Wubben-Moy inspired England’s European Championship-winning football team to send an open letter to the two conservative leadership candidates, asking for football to be made available to all school girls. After the gold for women and bronze for men at the Commonwealth Games, the English hockey teams followed with their own wish list.

Both letters guaranteed a minimum of two hours of PE per week; England Hockey has also called for team sports to be at the heart of PE classes, with improved facilities and more PE teachers for primary and secondary schools. They weren’t the first. A joint letter from the chief executives of the Football Association, the Lawn Tennis Association, the England and Wales Cricket Board and the English rugby union and league chief executives also asked the next prime minister to prioritize PE.

The lobby for more sports in schools is not new, but it seizes the moment. In July, Ali Oliver, chief executive of the Youth Sports Trust, pointed out that this year has seen the largest recorded increase in childhood obesity in the UK, “all at a time when we have seen massive time savings in the physical education curriculum and a decline in the number of school sports”.

It is unusual that today’s problem is not funding. The PE provision is declining, despite the granting of ‘sports grants’ of up to £16,000 available to primary schools in England, with £320 million pledged to the scheme over the coming year. Sport England has provided £13.5 million to train secondary school teachers in the subject and around 75% of schools have received funding.

Last year the House of Lords formed a select committee to try to understand what went wrong – why, ten years after London 2012, Britain’s young people weren’t the healthier, more active generation that successive governments had promised they would to be. A number of pundits were invited to testify, including Lady Sue Campbell, director of women’s football at the FA. Campbell, who has repeatedly warned the government that Olympic heritage was being wasted, was also unable to do anything at this hearing. Time for PE was squeezed across the board, she said. This meant that schools employed fewer PE teachers and also had after-school clubs.

“It hasn’t been a lack of investment,” she said. “It was a lack of strategy and a lack of managed implementation.” While there was “a lot of money” going to primary schools, there was “very little supervision and very little accountability”. In other words, much of the money was not used properly or for the purposes for which it was intended.

This was exactly what Campbell predicted would happen in 2010, when Michael Gove cut funding for the school sports partnerships developed during her leadership of the Youth Sports Trust. But why listen to a woman with a winning track record? At secondary schools that operate within those schemes, the number of students who exercise for two hours or more per week rose from 20% to 90%.

When the government ended the schemes, it offered headteachers the “freedom to organize sports themselves” rather than actual support. Mo Farah’s former gym teacher, Alan Watkinson, was another who predicted the outcome in a 2013 essay for the Smith Institute. By prioritizing “individual effort and entrepreneurship,” he wrote, “he adds to an already overstretched workload for school leaders”. The vital task of “handling the obesity time bomb” was left entirely to chance.

Woodhill Primary School pupils play hockey as they celebrate the opening of the new multi-purpose sports facility in October 2014.  The Greenwhich school, the first in London to be completed, received £30,000 in National Lottery funding from Sport England's Primary Spaces fund to transform its playground.
Woodhill Primary School pupils play hockey as they celebrate the opening of the new multi-purpose sports facility in October 2014. The Greenwich school, the first in London to be completed, received £30,000 in National Lottery funding from Sport England’s Primary Spaces fund to transform its playground. Photo: Tom Dulat/Getty Images

And so the wheel turns. In February 2013, Ofsted called for a national school sports strategy building on school sports partnerships; now a Lords committee is proposing a national sports and recreation plan that includes similar school strategy recommendations that have been proposed for a decade by those in the know.

Peter Keen, the head of UK Sport who oversaw Team GB’s 2012 London gold rush, sees the loss of the school partnerships as 10 years of missed opportunity. “The design features and philosophy put school sports at the heart of our thinking in terms of sports strategy and child development in general,” he says. “However we do it, we need to go back to that dialogue and assert again that physical literacy is essential for development.”

Nick Pink, chief executive of England Hockey, agrees. “It’s been a real challenge for state schools over the past ten years,” he says. “The lack of top-level strategy has thrown us back – that’s why we see this challenge for the event’s legacy system, as it needs to be backed up by good strategy.

“UK Sport talks about winning well, the integrity of sport, but it also needs to be supported by a PE in Schools plan that provides the fundamental development skills children and young people need so that they can continue to participate in sport for a lifetime.”

Research into ‘physical literacy’ has shown it to be vital to a child’s development and future well-being; it can be argued that it is just as important as arithmetic and reading. But bad experiences with PE make many reject physical activity completely, and the fracture can take a lifetime to heal. The drop-off rate for sports among teens remains high and campaigns to encourage people back — like This Girl Can — are corrective measures for a problem that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

Therefore, one of the most powerful proposals in the committee’s report is to make sports a core subject in the curriculum. “It’s bizarre that it hasn’t yet,” Keen says. “That’s not to say that many people’s experiences with gym in school were not adequate and there are many, many things that need to be changed about it.”

Who will be the next prime minister, this is the next sporting battle to be engaged and resolved.

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