It is virtually impossible to have a conversation about sport in the UK these days without the words ‘Olympic Legacy’ being quoted. This debate was going on even before London was awarded the 2012 games. It has become the Holy Grail of sport, but if it isn’t to become the stuff of historic legend then we need a long term strategic plan of how it will be delivered.
Whilst there are some positive aspects to what the government is doing to promote sport and physical activity there is still little evidence that everyone in government is committed to this aim. People involved at the grass roots of sport in our communities want to be able to plan ahead for the long term. This requires consistency across all government departments and a cross-party agreement that survives changes of government.
The recent announcement of £150 million per year for the next two years for sport and PE in primary schools is helpful, but it raises many questions about the government’s commitment to creating a true legacy. Why has it taken six months from the closing ceremony of the Paralympics to this money being announced? Why is the £150 million for primary schools guaranteed for only two years? Why did we spend two years dismantling what had been achieved under School Sport Partnerships after the entire annual budget of £162 million was cut in October 2010?
School Sports Partnerships (SSPs) laid the foundations on which a school sports legacy should have been built. Every school in the country was included in a partnership and was focussed on increasing general participation in physical activities, including competitive sport. The School Games on the other hand focuses on competition and requires schools to voluntarily invest time and resources to be involved. Of the 24,000 schools in England, just over 16,000 are registered with the school games – leaving around 8,000 schools with no involvement in the programme.
Statistics show that SSPs succeeded in increasing participation in two hours of sport and PE a week from 25 percent in 2000 to over 90 percent by 2010. Contrary to the claims of those opposed to SSPs they also increased participation in competitive sport to 79 percent for boys and 77 percent for girls.
A legacy must involve several strategies; encouraging those of all ages who are currently inactive to get involved in physical activities; creating more opportunities for young people in our schools and nurturing better links with community sports organisations, particularly for teenagers; broadening the sports and PE experience of primary age children; ensuring that school children get the broadest experience of sports activities; and ensuring that those involved in the development of children and providing guidance to parents understand the importance of developing physical literacy.
If we are to create a lasting legacy for future generations then we must get it right in the earliest years of our children’s development. To do this we will have to change the current thinking in education that fails to give sufficient importance to physical development. The lack of importance attached to children’s physical literacy leads to many children turning away from PE and sport in later life because they feel inadequate when asked to participate in physical activities. Everyone involved in providing support and services to families with young children needs to be made aware of the importance of physical literacy in the early years of a child’s development.
As children progress through school they should be encouraged to experience the broadest possible range of sports. In order to achieve this, schools will need to be able to access networks of specialist sports’ coaches and PE teachers. The government ring-fenced money for coaching in schools will help, but if they want to fundamentally change the way we teach sport and PE in primary schools then those planning and delivering these activities must be sure that the funding will last more than two years.
The failure to commit funding for longer than two years risks making this a political football which is exactly what everyone across the sports community wants to avoid. Two years of funding takes us just beyond the next general election and is bound to be viewed with suspicion.
If the money is to have any long-term effect in schools then primary-teacher training courses must give more time to PE and sport; such courses currently allocate on average only about eight hours to the subject. Specialist PE teaching is extremely important in the early years and through Key Stage 1 of children’s education. In later years we need to develop a broader curriculum for sport and PE which is where the government’s investment is welcome. What is lacking is a structure at local level that will foster cooperation between schools, allowing resources to be pooled to get better value for money.
Sport and PE training for teachers must also include awareness of the needs of children with disabilities. There is no reason why children without a restricting disability should be excluded from participating in sports for those with disabilities. In many instances this may encourage those children who would otherwise feel excluded to get involved. I cannot see why any child would not enjoy playing a sport such as wheelchair basketball; it is an extremely exacting sport and one that everyone could enjoy. It requires equipment and storage space but the pay back must be worth the investment.
Parents must be empowered to monitor what is provided and be given the information that will enable them to consider sport when they choose a school for their child. This is the same for every parent whatever the physical ability of their child.
The capacity of every child to engage in physical activities must be taken into consideration at the earliest stages whether it be planning and designing equipment or apparatus or organising physical activities. Every community has facilities provided in local public parks, but how many of them were designed with people with disabilities in mind? There are simple ways we can alter our approach to sport at national and local level that can increase participation among people of all abilities if we plan for it at the earliest stages.
This is all about altering the way we think about sport and stitching it into our culture. My own experience has taught me that telling people what they should or should not do when it comes to engaging in sport and physical activity does not work. We have to change the attitudes and make it easier for people to get active. If we can get this generation engaged at the earliest ages we have a greater chance that they will remain active for life and pass a sporting habit onto their own children. That is the real route to the legacy and a bit more joined-up thinking and cross-party action will increase our chances of making it a reality and not a myth that was dreamed of when the Olympics and Paralympics came to town.