Where next for secondary school sport?


Despite all the talk of Olympic legacy, funding for secondary school sport runs dry this September. Former PE teacher and sports coach Crispin Andrews looks back at two years of sporting cuts and asks what next?

Little over six months after London handed the Olympic torch to Rio, arguments about government funding of school sport rage on.

This September will see the second anniversary of the day that £168 million a year in funding, which enabled every maintained school in the country to be part of a School Sports Partnership (SSP), ran out.

In 2009/10, more than 90 per cent of pupils had two hours of PE a week and 78 per cent took part in competitive sport. Despite this, thousands of school sports co-ordinators, partnership development managers, competition managers and primary link teachers lost their jobs when the cuts hit. Those who remained were required to return to a narrower focus on their own classes and sports teams.

The 2010 public service spending review also removed sports college funding. Local authorities, too, had their budgets cut and leisure and recreation, seen by many local decision-makers as a non-essential service, was one of the areas hardest hit.

The government also abolished PE and school sports targets. Before that, schools whose children did two or more hours of PE at school had their names published and the school sports movement, headed up by the Youth Sport Trust, was well on its way towards achieving five hours a week.

Elsewhere, guidelines that linked a school’s playing field(s) size to its number of pupils on roll have gone. Now headteachers can decide what a “suitable” outdoor playing space might look like and while many school leaders will maintain their outdoor areas, there are concerns that balancing budgets and generating revenue might be just as big an influence on decisions as providing the best environment for children to play sport.

There have been glimmers of hope. For the last two years, secondary school heads have had some extra funding to release a PE teacher from their own teaching timetable, one day a week, to organise sport. A compromise offered by the government after the outcry over its SSP cuts.

For the past two years, this teacher has spent their time in their own school or, if the head and their PE department was so inclined, in local primaries. This money was not ring-fenced, though. If the headteacher wanted to use it to refurbish changing rooms or employ an extra music teacher, they could. Although this funding is set to run out at the end of this academic year.

In January 2011, the government also announced that Sport England will help set up 4,000 community sports clubs on secondary school sites, where expert coaches will run sessions to create ties between schools and existing local sports clubs. Already, 2,000 football clubs have pledged to be linked to secondary schools by 2017, 1,300 rugby union clubs, 1,250 cricket clubs and 1,000 rugby league and tennis clubs.

However, in March, the government’s long-awaited school sports announcement disappointed many secondaries – a new £150 million primary school sport initiative with funding from both the Departments of Health and Education. This is ring-fenced money which will be given directly to primary schools over the next two years to be spent on sport. And there’s enough of it, the government says, for an average sized primary of 250 children, to employ a specialist teacher or coach for two days a week.

Whereas before, funding and expertise filtered down to primaries through the SSPs and secondary schools, now primary schools will go it alone.

This is the ongoing tug of war for school sport that education secretary Michael Gove kicked off in 2010. On one side, the sports lobby is worried about the loss of grassroots Olympic legacy and fears that we are going to produce a nation of inactive children. On the other, government economists talk about financial crises, safeguarding public money and the need to develop a culture where people are less reliant on public services.

Both sides have their complaints. The government about how during the SSP years, bureaucracies of organisers, planners and managers, took money away from the actual teaching and coaching of PE and sport in schools. Meanwhile, professionals on the ground are wondering who, if not they, will now organise matches and tournaments, arrange visits from external coaches and get children into local sports clubs? 

Who will monitor quality, devise programmes to reach disengaged youngsters and stretch the most talented? Who will apply for funding to upgrade facilities? Who will make sure that all children take part, not just those who are already into sport?

The government’s answer to many of these questions has been its School Games – a huge multi-sport event in which, ministers said, children and young people could play proper competitive sport. However, professionals on the ground again are wondering who will get the children to these events, or encourage schools whose headteachers aren’t interested in sport to take part?

Lee Holmes, head of PE at Castleford High School in Yorkshire, says that without staff time and funding, PE departments have to put on the extra things that SSPs used to organise in their spare time. 

“It’s difficult to replace the work that SSPs did with clubs,” he explained. “The tournaments they organised sparked off a great deal of interest, and without them many children don’t get involved.”

One of the biggest worries for schools is the so-called postcode lottery. The fear that without the compulsion of ring-fenced funding attached to national school sports targets, some schools would go their own way. Particularly without the guidance and support that SSPs offered. Dave Crocker, from Brampton Manor School in Essex, asked: “Should a child’s PE and sporting experience be dependent on what an individual PE teacher is interested in or prepared to do, or whether their school is keen on sport?”

The new primary school money is ring-fenced, but there are concerns as to whether primary schools have enough expertise, or the facilities, to make the most of the money. Furthermore, some headteachers will turn to private coaching companies for a quick fix – companies which will run PE lessons for two years, and then disappear when the money runs out.

“If this happens, a school will be back to square one in two years’ time,” explained John Steele, chief executive of school sport charity, the Youth Sport Trust. “We’re looking for schools to develop their own capacity to deliver PE and sport.”

Chris Willetts, director of the Tower Hamlets Youth Sport Foundation in east London, believes that primaries will still need help from secondary schools, particularly in the early stages. He explained: “Some primary schools have had no support for two years, since the SSPs went, and will be starting from scratch, again.”

Mr Willetts, who used to run the local SSP and is still based at Langdon Park School in Tower Hamlets, set up the Foundation after the 2010 funding cuts.

It already provides sports and physical activity specialists for local primary schools, paid for by the schools out of their own budgets, usually through their Pupil Premium fund. 

He continued: “History tells us that you need some sort of infrastructure to make this work. When schools were left to their own devices in the past, it often didn’t happen.”

Mr Willetts is also concerned that the new arrangements will cause a divide between primary and secondary schools, with each looking at their own provision and how to pay for it, rather than thinking of designing the best possible physical activity experience.

With no new money coming to secondary schools this September, the government seems to believe that secondary PE teachers are more than capable of delivering this extra-curricular PE and sport alone.

However, Mr Willetts added: “Secondary schools need some help too. PE departments won’t necessarily have experts in handball, water polo, fencing and sailing – all sports in which Britain won medals at the London Olympics.”

While the government would point to the Sport England programme to set up community sports clubs and create ties between schools and existing local sports clubs, although Mr Willetts is aware that in some inner city areas it is difficult to find such clubs: ‘This is great where there are sports clubs, but in many inner city areas we don’t have any.”

In Tower Hamlets, community clubs based in schools but run by external coaches, sourced, paid for and organised by the SSP worked well. After three years, children from one local judo club had even got into the GB squad. “And these were children who would have never started if left to their own devices.”

And so the tug of war continues. The result: two years of deadlock and a legacy of one of the most successful Olympic Games which is in danger of disappearing. There’s a general election due in May 2015. Watch this space for more huffing and puffing.

  • Crispin Andrews is a freelance writer, former PE Teacher, and a sports coach.


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