The BBC News website reported (1st December) that David Cameron has ordered a rethink on school sports cuts. Such a U-turn, if it comes, should be applauded and would be a tremendous victory for common sense.
However we should not celebrate. School sport should be no different from elite sport in that we should always be striving to do things better, a Government turn-about will only return us to where we were.
The debate over whether to keep School Sports Partnerships (SSPs) or to dispose with them has put us in danger of getting back what we had and, mistakenly seeing it as a step forward, settling for where we were as that step forward.
This blog has recently tackled the absence of proper Physical Literacy development in our primary schools, absent despite having School Sports Partnerships (SSPs). We have also asked whether ‘cuts or no cuts’ is even the right question.
And asking the right question(s) is key to moving sport forward. As any good consultant will tell you, asking questions is easy, it is in asking the right questions and in asking the right follow-up questions that we establish facts and in matters of strategy (which this is) gain the depth of intelligence we need in order to progress in the right direction, at the right pace and with the right resources.
So when Michael Gove tells us that he would like schools to focus on more competitive sport I worry that the so-called ‘experts’ advising him have not asked him how he intends to provide the structure that supports this, a structure largely serviced by SSPs? Where is the structure that supports the development of people so that beyond simply taking part in competitive sport they can enjoy and even excel at it? If Mr Gove and the Government want a legacy then they should be told by someone who actually ‘gets’ sport that prolonged participation is far more likely among people who have the basic skill set to enjoy sport.
Another question for Mr Gove might also be; what about young people who don’t enjoy competitive sport? Why are they going to take up, let alone stay in, sport?
It is a question I asked myself 17 years ago and which, in part, led to my coming up with the idea for, designing and launching the Race For Life. Through my involvement in organising other running events I had noticed that the percentage of female participants was generally extremely low and although there were/are other societal issues and, although not enjoying competitive sport is not limited solely to women, I came up with the idea of a less challenging distance (5km, which was very rare back then) and removing the ‘testosterone’ of competition by making the event female only.
The Race For Life has gone on to become a huge success but I wonder whether it would have even got out of the starting gate had the current Department for Education had any involvement, insisting on it being competitive. That would mean hundreds of thousands of women might not have taken part in sport, hardly the stuff of legacy!
I am a purist and of course, at its heart sport is competitive and that must be one focus but it can’t be the only one.
Back to the SSPs. When/if we get them back the important question of how do we improve from here must be asked. Also asked must be how do we meaningfully measure that improvement for some of the figures thrown about it the last few weeks are not believable and undermine a sound argument (e.g. a spokesman on the BBC claimed 46% of young people between 14 and 16 are members of a sports club; patently nonsense).
From a long-term strategy point of view it will be essential that a vertically integrated structure is applied to sport in the UK. The Government have already made a small first step towards this with the announcement of the merging of UK Sport and Sport England (although, unfortunately, not for a few years). However, as long as school sport is seen as separate to the rest of sport the system will never operate at its most economic, efficient or effective and the proper planning of fully inclusive sports development along the sports development continuum will be undermined.
The likely U-turn from the Government should be welcomed and undoubtedly School Sport Partnerships have a large, long-term role to play in the development of sport. But, if we are serious about developing sport, including the equipping of young people to participate (and enjoy participating) for life we must not settle for getting back to where we were. We should always be asking; “how do we do this better?”
© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2010