Updated: May 10
A week ago I worried that making the point that there needed to be a reversal of the cuts in facilities and time devoted to sport would be condemned as ‘playing politics’. Playing politics is a term used by politicians to dismiss something they don’t want to acknowledge. But now, this Government is falling over itself to make political capital out of the success of Team GB, and to rewrite history in the process.
Apparently, all we need to do is reverse the lefty policy of banning competition in sport and get teachers to make sure two hours a day are devoted to making gets take part in competitive sport. (That two-hour a day target is the latest policy to come from the top of comedian Boris Johnson’s head). That, coupled with the Coalition’s decision to maintain funding for Olympic sports until the Rio Olympics in 2016, should sort everything out. All this is a pretty good example of how stupid our political leaders think the public is, but not much else.
The notion of left wing educationalists ‘banning’ competitive sport comes from the same tradition as Lambeth Council banning black bin bags in the 1980s because they were racist (they didn’t) or the EU banning curved bananas (an interpretation which required some considerable contortion to justify). It’s true that there have been cases of competition being frowned upon or discouraged, and the idea that ‘all shall have prizes’ has been taken a bit far at times. But the idea that the sporting commissars of the left have knocked the competitive spirit out of our nation’s youth is, frankly, cobblers. But it does have its uses.
Pushing the line that it’s trendy-lefty anti-competiveness wot’s to blame conveniently obscures the fact that kids wanting to play sport – competitive or otherwise – have faced rather more pressing issues. Such as the selling off of playing fields – under Labour and Tory governments – and the increase in teachers’ workloads. Schools have been changed from places where people have time to learn into places which churn out the results required to keep the funding, and teachers have been subjected to an increasing amount of instruction on what they should teach, how they should teach it and for how long. As teacher’s workloads have increased, so the amount of time they can devote to school sport – or are willing to devote to school sport – has increased.
It’s a fairly standard response of government to insist on more compulsory maths when there’s a big hoo-ha about the lack of numeracy, or more compulsory science when that becomes an issue. The ‘we must have more compulsory’ sport wheeze is the latest in a long line, and even our MPs must eventually realise that there are only a certain number of hours in a school day. But when London’s mayor seriously suggests two hours of compulsory sport a day, making 10 hours of sport in a school week of 25 hours, you do wonder. The response, of course, will be that this two hours should be outside of the school day. And teachers should do that for no extra pay – there’s a recession on, don’t you know? And no one should object to kids being forced into two hours of compulsory competitive sport every day after school. I seem to remember we used to criticise the Eastern Bloc countries for doing similar things.
This is classic knee-jerk politics – and in this case it’s clear which jerks need to be kneed. The Government must be seen to be backing sport – not because it’s the right thing to do, but because the success of Team GB at the Olympics has made made sport a hot potato. And being seen to back sport means obscuring all the things this Government has done to undermine sport. Which brings us rather nicely to school sport partnerships. These were extremely successful in increasing participation in school sport. Expertise was pooled, extra training funded, and it worked. Schools said so, and so did elite athletes such as Denise Lewis and Kelly Holmes. But SSPs were collective. They were a product of a central initiative, rather statist. So Education Secretary Michael Gove abolished them. The Government backed this purely ideological decision.
And so when, as they surely will do over the next few weeks, this Government emphasises its commitment to sport, remember the SSPs. Ask how all this new compulsory sport is going to be funded and resourced. Ask why everything points to the re-establishment of something that’s just been abolished. And ask why the awful ideologue Gove is still in his job.
But this sudden conversion to backing sport by the Government threatens to be quite damaging too, again because ideology is being allowed to trample over common sense. The libertarian lunacy at the heart of this Government means it’s all over the competitive/non-competitive angle. It’s a classic example of a justification arriving for a conclusion already made. But sport isn’t just about competition. If you don’t want to take my word for it, take the view of Jessica Ennis, who knows a thing or two about sport. When the BBC asked her about pushing competitive sport, she made the point that to enjoy competing in sport, kids have to first enjoy participating in sport.
The fevered calls to frogmarch all kids into a sporting session and ‘make’ them compete risks alienating at least as many kids as it inspires. The fact is that not all kids are good at sports, and not all kids are competitive. The bottom line needs to be to get kids active – whether that’s in competition or not. More active kids means less health problems in future, and so less strain on the country’s resources. That’s not an ideological stance – the evidence is there if you care to look for it. Once sport is seen as open to all and fun, there’s more chance of kids participating and finding an aptitude for something. And that’s where the next stage kicks in – the ability to identify and resource those kids who are able to compete at a number of levels, and finally to properly resource the elite athletes at the top of the pile.
Football’s alway been the sport I’ve loved more than any other, but sadly the state of football in Britain illustrates much that is wrong with the way sport has gone. Schools football, certainly and primary school level, has fallen apart and that, coupled with fears about letting kids go out to the park on their own, has led to the privatisation of public activity. There are vast leagues for teams from under 7 all the way through to under 15, populated by clubs run largely by parents living out their footballing dreams vicariously through the institutions they’ve set up. I don’t want to criticise the good coaches that undoubtedly exist at this level, but I’ve seen far too many bad coaches and far too much bad practice.
The FA is belatedly making some efforts to address this, ironically enough by adopting a system heavily influenced by the successful dutch model, and which is being criticised in some quarters for being “non-competitive”. The new system is not non-competitive, it just puts less emphasis on winning at all costs than some of the jumped-up Jose Mourinhos of kids football would like. So flexible format competitions replace league tables up to age 11, and 11-a-side games on full-size pitches don’t start unto kids are aged 14. This enables more emphasis to be put on technical skills, and gives kids more opportunity to succeed. But check the howls of outrage on the kids’ football message boards (all of which seem to be from the adults). These changes, say the objectors, mean kids won’t get a chance to play, they take the competitive spirit away, it will spell disaster for the game.
In kids’ football at the moment, technical ability is undervalued in favour of physical strength. Clubs are riven with inter-parental politics and so it’s almost inevitable that decisions will often not be made for football reasons. Kids who are too young are often made to play on pitches that are too big and too heavy – hence the demand for strong, athletic types. Coaches talk of “must-win games”. It seems few people involved can make the connection between this and producing an England team that is unable to pass or be as tactically astute as the opposition, or between the new system the FA is trying to bring in which has gone a long way to producing generations of Dutch football. If you want an example of the debate that’s going on, read the comments at this website, and if you want to be encouraged, scroll down to the contribution by FA Youth Development Officer Nick Levett.
I took that trip into the world of kids’ football to illustrate what can happen to kids’s sport when it’s left to develop as the sporting libertarians would like. I don’t take any pleasure in saying that I’m not particularly optimistic about the future of kids’ football – but that may be based on what I’ve seen over the last few years rather than on the encouraging developments that are out there but which I’ve only heard about. Football’s other problem is maybe that there are simply too many of us who love it, who want to be part of it. So everyone’s an expert, and every part of it means too much. With Team GB’s success threatening to be the Gazza moment for all sorts of Olympic sports, it’s to be hoped that these sports learn the lessons from what’s happened to football.
Finally, there is the question of elite sport and elite sport funding. The Government says it will “maintain funding” in the run-up to Rio. So that assumes the Lottery contribution will hold up, and that inflation and the predicted drop-off in commercial backing don’t bite too hard. It also ignores the fact that the current level of funding is still over-stretched. So when the Olympic hype dies down, expect to see some more stories about facilities being cut and athletes having to make other arrangements to maintain their performance.
Sport is important, not just because of the joy and the drama and the inspiration it can provide. It can be inclusive, it can bind people together while emphasising their individuality, and it can contribute to the greater good by improving health and life expectancy. The Olympics have provided a chance for us, as a country, to get our heads right about sport. But it’ll take more than the current politicians’ bluster, and it’s certainly about more than the false debate about competitive versus uncompetitive sport.