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We won't find future Olympians on state school playing fields

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 05, 2012

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Ex-headteacher George Muirhead fears the Olympic legacy for schools could be squandered.

Many students, teachers and Heads will be reflecting on the heady days from the Olympics and Paralympic Games as the new term starts.

Some, no doubt, will be reflecting on the promise made to create a legacy of achievement for all our talented youngsters, regardless of their background.

As we look towards Rio in 2016, our future top athletes should be operating in a sporting "meritocracy", but increasingly Government policy, particularly in schools, is creating an "aristocracy" where money and privilege seem to count more than ability and ambition.

Some 37% of the medal winning athletes came from private schools, which educates just 7% of our youngsters. Government has proclaimed this as unacceptable, yet their current plans do nothing to redress the balance, instead they seem sure to continue widening the gap.

In one of his first acts as Secretary of State, Michael Gove notoriously and arrogantly scrapped one of the best policies of the last labour Government: School Sports Partnerships. This linked schools in 240 partnerships, and forged links with local amateur and professional sports clubs. It was managed by Sports coordinators and specialists who ensured that sport remained high on schools agendas.

Vitally, it delivered the means to achieve quality sporting opportunities for our youngsters, from an early age. He saved around £160 million with this decision and destroyed a network that, as Head, I saw to be one of the most cost-effective ways of simultaneously combating obesity and helping children to demonstrate their sporting prowess, regardless of their parents' ability to pay. It had achieved the almost impossible feat of raising participation in sport for two hours a week by youngsters from 20% in 2003 to 85% in 2010. In addition, it opened up opportunities in areas like sailing, hockey and even archery and rowing, that until that point had been the preserve of the private school.

On the eve of the Olympics, and in the name of deregulation, he compounded the difficulty of delivering an Olympic sporting legacy by scrapping many of the rules preventing schools from selling off their playing fields. Gove destroyed the "Building Schools for the Future" programme which had a strategy for renovating and rebuilding our school stock.

Many educational professionals believe that he actually wants a programme called "Building Schools for the Past" as his curriculum reforms and slashing of the building budget has moved the clock back. This policy has forced many schools to choose between either looking after open spaces, which could be used for sport, or selling them off to raise funds to repair and rebuild the fabric of their buildings.

In addition The Secretary of State's colleagues at the treasury have placed Local Authorities under enormous pressure to reduce spending and as such they have been pruning their non-statutory obligations to provide services. One of the softest targets to be hit is leisure and has led, for example, to a 20% reduction in spending on sports facilities in Sheffield, the home of Golden Girl Jessica Ennis. What price the sporting opportunities for the next Jessica?

A report was commissioned in 2005 by Tony Blair, into the cost of upgrading public provision of sporting facilities across the country. Baron Carter of Coles reported that it would cost £4.5 billion to rebuild, pools, sports centres etc in our local communities. This is half the amount we spent on the Olympics and of course has been kicked into the long grass of political priority.

There has been a half hearted attempt by the outgoing Chairman of the Olympic Association, former Sports Minister Lord Moynihan, to suggest that private schools should open up their sports facilities for the use of local schools, or lose their charitable status. Do we really believe that in the 21st century we should have to rely upon the patronage of a local private school to ensure that our youngsters get access to the best facilities to achieve their sporting potential?

Michael Gove should simply admit that he was wrong in scrapping the School Sports Partnerships and re-introduce it, at a nominal cost in Government spending terms. By this simple measure the Government would be helping ensure that the legacy for Rio 2016 and beyond is that all children, regardless of their background, get the opportunity to demonstrate their sporting skills from an early age and, if good enough, go on to represent our country in future Olympics, the real meaning of the motto, "To inspire a Generation".

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