Friday 17 August 2012

How will the Government's Olympic Legacy Affect Our Kids?

So, the London 2012 Olympics are over, the medals have been won, the opening and closing ceremonies were one to remember, and the Royal Family and her Majesty made themselves more accessible by appearing at the Olympics and cheering on competitors just like everyone else. The country and the world came together to celebrate Olympic Sport which was intended to inspire a future generation, and there was no trace of Heather Small asking us what we had done today to make ourselves feel proud.

It has been reported in the media this week that websites associated with Olympic Sports have seen a huge hike in their traffic over the last few weeks as people, eager to get involved in sport, search to locate their nearest sport club or specialist class. Even eldest, (who is not a particularly sporty child) upon watching the medal giving ceremonies went upstairs to her room to grab a pretend gold medal and some flowers, and declared she wanted to become an Olympic athlete one day.

The success of Team GB and the legacy of the London 2012 Olympics definitely seems to have inspired a generation. In fact, it seems to have inspired the whole country, from the average man on the street, to politicians and royalty. Indeed, it seems that the government is keen to ride on the coat tails of Team GB's impressive medal haul and is putting a positive spin on how well they intend to invest in sport for the future.

However, since they came to power, the current government has apparently done little to support sports in school and secure success for the future generation. Over their term in office, the government has scrapped the target of pupils doing a minimum of two hours of PE a week and the school sports budget has been cut by 69%. This week, the media reported that the Department for Education have now also changed their rules regarding school fields. Previously, secondary schools had to provide 38 to 50 square metres of "game playing field" for every child. Now the new regulations state that schools only have to provide "suitable outdoor space" for PE & recreation - a ruling which is subject to interpretation and conjecture. The government is planning to sell off more than 30 school fields, with potentially more to follow - meaning that pupils will lose vital space for practising sport on.

Additionally, the hugely successful School Sports Partnership was also scrapped at the end of July 2011 when the current government pulled it's £162m a year funding, replacing it with just 65m funding spread over three years. This has prompted local schools sports networks to form, but with the capacity to invest in sport on a much smaller scale than their predecessors. Personally, one of the reasons that I think that this Olympics has been so successful is thanks in part to the success of the School Sports Partnerships scheme. There were 450 School Sport Partnerships within the UK, which were essentially a nationwide network of sports colleges. The sports colleges co-ordinated school sport within their local area and placed specialist PE coaches within secondary and primary schools. The partnership also linked schools and their pupils with local sports clubs, provided coaching to students within school, and promoted competitive sport.

In the area where I live, there was a hugely successful sports partnership which really engaged with pupils, schools, clubs and the local community. It was extremely instrumental in getting local school pupils involved in club sport, indeed, one of the London 2012 medal winning Olympic Athletes actually attended a school involved in the local partnership and i'm sure would have benefited in some way from the School Sports Partnership scheme. As the area is quite deprived in some parts, it also provided an opportunity for students from more disadvantaged backgrounds to experience sports which their parents would have not been able pay for, and provided funding for promising athletes to pursue the sports they excelled at to club level and beyond. In addition to competitive sport, the partnership also provided opportunities to get pupils who weren't interested in doing competitive sport to engage in physical activity by offering classes such as boxercise, yoga and dance.

When the current government axed the sports partnership scheme, I think they axed something really special. I doubt whether pupils coming through school now will have access to the same amount of competitive and non-competitive sports opportunities as pupils did previously. Indeed, I have seen the effect that funding cuts have had this year in eldest's school. Her primary school is a small rural school, and so being part of the sports partnership and having links through sport to other local schools, and outside coaches getting the kids interested in various sports was a real lifeline to the school. Now, they have lost many outside PE teachers and sports coaches and the school has become more disengaged from schools and clubs within the local community than they were previously.

Has the London 2012 Olympics inspired a generation? - I don't doubt it! However, I think that only kid's whose parents have enough disposable income to pay for their classes or coaching will benefit from the sports legacy that London 2012 leaves. I fear that those athletes who were inspired to start engaging with sport through their local School Sports Partnerships schemes will be a lost breed and those who could have had the opportunity to get involved in sports had the School Sports Partnership still existed, will never have the chance to appear in the next Olympics unless their parents can afford to financially support them themselves. Will we be producing even better results in Rio in 2016? - I sincerely hope so, but I am sure that it will be down to the hardwork and dedication of the athletes and their parents paying for private tuition, rather than the contribution of schools, teachers, and external coaches who no longer have the funding to inspire kids to participate in sports.

So what about non-competitive sports? Are they just as important as Olympic Sports? Well, it seems that the government does not seem to think so. Indeed, there have been reports in the media that one of the reasons David Cameron cut the funding for the School Sports Partnership was because schools were engaging in too many activities like Indian Dancing classes, Street Dance classes and other non-competitive sports. I used to freelance for the School Sports Partnership, teaching street and contemporary dance in schools all over the borough. I taught dance during PE lessons, lunchtime and after school to girls who mostly, point blank refused to engage in competitive sport. Although I will fully admit that classes like mine probably did not inspire students to compete in an Olympic Games, in an area with one of the highest levels of obesity within the country, I did get students to partake in a form of physical exercise by providing an activity that they could engage with, which was a personal achievement for them.

During my time in the Sports Partnership, I can recall a particular school I taught in where 99% of the students were from deprived backgrounds. The female students did not bring PE kits to school or own a pair of trainers because they said that their families couldn't afford them. The school did not have enough funding to create more space for students to engage in sports, even though the Sports Partnership was able to supply external coaches to teach physical activity. In this school, I often found myself turning up to teach only to be given a traditional classroom, lecture theatre, or even science lab to teach in rather than a dance studio or sports hall. I often had to stack chairs and clear desks before any teaching could take place. The floor was often carpeted and caked in chewing gum and mud, or otherwise the floor tiles were often too dirty to sit, stretch or move around on, and I would often have to scrabble around to find a place to plug my stereo in. However, once the blinds were closed to protect the girl's 'reps', and if the girls approved of my music choices, they would then spend an hour learning a dance I had prepared, making up their own dances and engaging in physical activity instead of sitting on the side of a sports field texting on their phones. Often they were dressed in their school uniforms and laden in jewellery which they could not be persuaded to remove, but the bottom line was that they participated.

Should competitive sport be the governments only focus for the future? I don't think so. Although activities like dance classes aren't going to bring olympic glory, they do bring individual successes. For the girls in my classrooms, the very fact that they had participated in a PE lesson was a big achievement for them. Within the sports partnership, classes like mine promoted self esteem and inspiration to young people who had always been told that they were no good at sport and so felt that there was no point in taking part in any kind of physical activity. Through my classes, some of the girls were inspired to join a local dance class and others were inspired to start their own in-school dance clubs to get the younger pupils involved in dance and promote physical activity.

So what of the London 2012 Olympic Legacy for our kids? Personally, my kids have been inspired by watching sports on the TV over the last couple of weeks. However, due to the loss of fantastic schemes like the Schools Sports Partnership, I have little faith that schools will have all of the resources to provide opportunities for our kids to engage in competitive sport as much as they used to, meaning that olympic potential could go unrealised. My kids are lucky enough to have private lessons at their local swim club, and I am sure youngest could perhaps be an olympic swimmer one day as she is like a fish in the water, but all of this would depend on us financially supporting her to achieve her goals, which some families would be unable to do. And what about eldest who has little interest in competitive sports but has a big love of dance? Again, luckily we are able to pay for dance lessons for her, but I fear that with the loss of the funding to promote non-competitive sports, many children (especially girls) like her may lose interest in any kinds of physical activity, therefore pushing up obestity rates and contributing even more to sedentary lifestyles.

I hope that in the aftermath of such a fantastic Olympics, the government may come to see just how big a role school and club sport can play in providing a great start for those athletes who could potentially come to experience Olympic success. I also hope that they will come to realise that competitive sport is not the only kind of physical activity which can inspire a generation, and that by playing down the role of non competitive sport, rather than inspiring a generation, they may be alienating one.

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