Previous Section Index Home Page

17 Jan 2008 : Column 345WH—continued

17 Jan 2008 : Column 346WH

There is always a temptation to look at school sport with rose-tinted spectacles—we have all met people who say that it was fantastic when they were at school and is not the same now. I am always a little suspicious about whether school sports were ever as good in the 1960s and ’70s as some people would have us believe. However, it is clear that a number of things happened in the 20 years after that to cause the system to fall apart, some of them the fault of successive Governments and some not. The teachers’ strike in the 1980s was damaging, because teachers stopped being so interested in extra-curricular activities and in many cases were told not to do it. The concentration on academic excellence that followed was entirely right in itself but often had the unintended effect of squeezing sport and other extra-curricular activities out of the curriculum. In some places there was an anti-competitive sport agenda, which was clearly wrong, as was the sale of playing fields.

As I have said, getting everything right is a pretty complex mix, but if there is one thing that makes a difference, on the basis of what I have seen in the past few years, it is the quality of the people involved. If the right people are in place delivering school sport, the results are often as they ought to be.

On the structure of sport, I have said that I have been to Australia and seen how they do it. One thing that they do much better than we do is structuring sport in government. Nobody should be blind to the fact that sport is a difficult topic for Government. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport looks after elite and mass participation sport, the Department for Children, Schools and Families looks after the school sport offer, and there is quite a lot of input from the Home Office, which is often interested in sport to help problem children and for social inclusion. Quite properly, we are increasingly using sport as a tool of international diplomacy and aid; UK Sport runs excellent programmes abroad. There is also the Ministry of Defence, and there are planning issues, of which we heard an excellent example this afternoon. It is incredibly difficult to bring it all together, as we find from talking to sports experts. I had a fascinating couple of hours six months ago with the professor of sport at the university of Toronto, who talked about the “playground to podium” ideal. It is incredibly difficult to bring that about by joining up all those activities.

I shall give the Minister a thought on how to do that. The Australians do it through the Australian Sports Commission, which brings together all the Ministers who have anything to do with sport so that they can iron out the various issues. It worked well in that way in its early days, but as it developed it also became a powerful champion for sport in Government. The equivalent to a Home Office Minister, for instance, would come along and say, “We have a problem with gun crime and knife crime,” or whatever it was, and somebody would be able to say, “This is where we can help you by running a football programme.” I know that Wolverhampton Wanderers runs a good scheme of that kind. Best practice can spread, and in that way the Australian Sports Commission became an incredibly powerful champion for sport.

The structure below Government in this country is also complicated. There is the Youth Sport Trust, and I entirely endorse the Minister’s words about its fantastic
17 Jan 2008 : Column 347WH
contribution in the 10 years or so for which it has been involved. There are the other non-departmental bodies with responsibility for young people’s sport, principally Sport England. For those who go on to elite programmes there is UK Sport. There are the sports’ national governing bodies, which have a vital role to play because they have the clubs and coaches. If the five-hour offer takes off, they will probably be closely involved in delivering it.

There are also the professional teaching bodies that have an interest—I am sure that the Minister is familiar with the Association for Physical Education—and local authorities, which are often the forgotten partners. Finally, there is the private sector. I suspect that other Members, like me, received a briefing from the Fitness Industry Association pointing out that it owns nearly 6,000 facilities up and down the country.

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman is quite right—I received that briefing too. I hope that the Minister will respond to the question whether the private sector can play a more imaginative role, particularly on community facilities or the absence of them. They often have top-quality facilities that are underused at certain times of the day or week and could be accessed.

Hugh Robertson: I am sure that that is right, and I think that we would all agree. The FIA’s briefing states that it has 6,000 facilities and more than 40,000 exercise professionals, which is clearly a huge wodge of expertise that we need to use.

Finally, as other Members have said, there are volunteers, who are key to the delivery of sport. So how can we pull it all together and make a strategy? I shall briefly mention the various elements of the strategy and what more could be done. The Government are there to set the strategy, pull it together and provide resources, but I hope that they will also act much more as an enabler. There are fantastic examples of good practice whereby, by giving a small tax incentive, the Government have been able to achieve an outcome far beyond what they had anticipated. One is the community amateur sports club scheme, for which there is a mandatory 80 per cent. rate relief. It has been a huge boon to sports clubs, and to qualify for it they just have to fill in a simple bit of paper. It is almost bureaucracy-free, and it has been a fantastic success.

Likewise, the national governing bodies lobby hard on corporation tax. The Rugby Football Union states powerfully that it is not a corporation and does not have shareholders but gets clobbered for corporation tax. If it were allowed to put that money into its grass roots programmes and its foundation, it could do a great deal more for young people’s sport with little bureaucratic overload.

The Central Council of Physical Recreation is running a campaign on gift aid for junior sports club subscriptions. That is another simple thing that could be done if it met all the necessary public expenditure tests. If clubs were allowed to claim back 28p in every pound for every junior sports club subscription, it would be a terrific incentive to clubs up and down the country to recruit as many young people as they possibly could. The Government can do such simple things, which would make a huge difference.

17 Jan 2008 : Column 348WH

The Government must also integrate the school sport strategy with the mass participation strategy. I hope that the Minister will be able to say a little about Sport England, although it is probably not directly in his remit. I entirely endorse the new Minister’s strategy of getting Sport England to concentrate on sport. The hon. Member for Loughborough clearly feels the same. As he said, the responsibility for participation in exercise is due to pass to the Department of Health. Will the Minister confirm what is happening in that regard?

There is also the lottery. We have been campaigning for some while for the lottery money to revert to its four original pillars. The amount that goes directly into sport from the national lottery has declined from £398 million in 1998 to £208 million last year, which is a big cut. If we are to deliver on many of the 2012 objectives, that will need to be corrected. As I have said, sport governing bodies have a vital role to play through their clubs and coaches and, crucially, through school-club links. We have mentioned the Youth Sport Trust, and then there are the schools themselves, which are the hub.

The Minister mentioned the building schools for the future programme. It is vital that the new facilities are built in such a way that they can be open for community use when a school is closed. I am sure that everybody in the room has driven past a school on a Saturday morning and seen pristine playing fields completely unused.

Tom Brake: Very often, particularly if a new school is located on a controversial site—I can think of one in my constituency—ensuring that its sports facilities are fully accessible to the community is a clear pay-back that the local community might feel offsets its other concerns.

Hugh Robertson: Once again, I entirely agree. The problem has been with older schools, as it is difficult to lock off facilities to meet child protection measures. That should not be a problem in building schools for the future, so I agree with the hon. Gentleman and hope that that will happen.

The Government must ensure that sport is at the centre of the school curriculum. It is too easy for schools to concentrate entirely on the academic side of life because of the pressures of league tables and so on. I do not know whether there is any way in which schools that perform exceptionally well in sport could be recognised. We all agree that it is a good thing for schools, and schools that specialise in sport generally do better academically as a result. Something is needed to ensure that schools take that seriously.

Teacher training is an interesting issue. I do not know whether this is absolutely true, but I have been told—that is always dangerous in opposition—that a primary school teacher going into their year’s teacher training will get only six hours of PE or sport training as part of the syllabus. That clearly is not enough to give them the confidence really to take on sport in primary schools. I have also been told, by the Association for Physical Education that, slightly disappointingly, the number of mainstream PE initial teacher training and education places is falling dramatically. It was 1,450 in 2005-06, 1,310 in 2006-07
17 Jan 2008 : Column 349WH
and has now fallen to 1,180. It will be extraordinarily difficult to deliver the extra school sport offer if the number of PE teachers coming into the system is declining dramatically. I hope that the Minister will consider that.

Another issue that I want to address is that of primary schools. I was very convinced by the Australian model of teaching physical literacy. Most people who deal with sport seriously will say that if one can get the right habits into children between the ages of six or seven and 11, it is likely to stay with them for the rest of their lives. We need far more concentration on that.

Finally, there is the challenge of the extended school day and how we use it to produce the five-hour offer. I suspect that that will be done only through an integrated strategy. We are already linking schools to clubs, but we need to bring them in to help deliver that strategy.

This has been an interesting and thought-provoking afternoon, with several very good contributions from hon. Members. I think we all agree that much good work has been done on school sport, and I congratulate the Minister and his Department on that. Equally importantly, there is emerging consensus on the direction in which we are travelling and on what needs to be done. If there is one thought on which we should finish, it is simply that 2012 was won not on a promise to rebuild the east end of London, but that the Olympics would be used to empower the lives of young people through sport. That is the single most important reason for having them, and it is the only way in which their legacy can be rolled out across the country. If, after 2012, everyone across the UK is playing more school sport to a better standard, we will have achieved something worth while. If, however, all we end up with is a set of gleaming buildings in the east end of London, I think that most of us will agree that quite some opportunity has been missed.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. Before the Minister speaks, I do not want to be accused of offering him a bung, but I have just been told that we are expecting a Division at 4.30 pm. That might give him a bit of an incentive to save us from coming back.

4.2 pm

Kevin Brennan: A little birdie said “vote imminent” to me, Mr. Hancock, so I shall do my best to cover the many points that hon. Members have raised. What the debate may have lacked in attendance, it has not lacked in content. I thank Members for their contributions, which have been in the right spirit—positive, useful and with the right intentions. To use a sporting analogy, I have the feeling that we are all in the same boat and want to go in the same direction, but we are trying to find the right way to row at the same rhythm.

As Members have noted, school sport has been one of our biggest success stories. That is largely down to school sport co-ordinators, link teachers, coaches, mentors and all the volunteers who have been mentioned in the debate. I should like to pick up as many specific points as possible that Members have raised.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. We have been caught out. We normally suspend for 15 minutes for a Division, but there are only four of us, so we will try to get back in 10 minutes.

17 Jan 2008 : Column 350WH
4.3 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.11 pm

On resuming—

Kevin Brennan: A few more votes and quick turnarounds like that, and we shall all be fit in no time at all.

I shall attempt to respond to the points that have been made during the debate. It ranged fairly widely—some of it was, perhaps, a little beyond my direct ministerial responsibility—but I shall do my best to respond on behalf of the Government. Clearly, if Members have further queries, I will attempt to follow up with correspondence as appropriate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) obviously is one of the Members of the House who has a great deal of expertise in and knowledge about school sport. He told us about his continuing participation as an active rugby player and as a volunteer in his local community. I pay tribute to him, to his leadership role in encouraging volunteering in sport and to the contribution that he always makes in these debates.

My hon. Friend started off by discussing obesity, which was also mentioned by other Members. We must acknowledge at the outset—in the spirit of the debate, I am sure we all will—that obesity is an international problem. It is a problem in all the countries of the western world whose stage of economic development is similar to ours. The recent Foresight report, which was commissioned by the Government and produced by the Foresight group under the leadership of Sir David King, brought home to us the significance of the issue, not as it is sometimes portrayed in the popular media in terms of morbid obesity but in the fact that we are all becoming more obese. To put it crudely, we are all getting fatter and, in decades to come, that will have a significant impact on the health and wealth of the nation. We need a proper response to that right across the Government and society.

In response to the Foresight report, the Government are planning to publish an obesity strategy in the near future. It will be the first go at responding to the challenges laid down by the report. It will be a broad cross-governmental response and will cover physical activity. The simple message of the report is that as animals who emerged from the caves a few thousand years ago, we are programmed through evolution to consume when we can, but our modern lifestyles do not require the same physical activity that would normally have been required even just a few decades ago.

Tom Brake: I accept that consumption may be slightly beyond the Minister’s remit, but I hope that with colleagues he is considering a matter that was raised in the press a few days ago about what food manufacturers are allowed to state on ready-made meals packaging. I understand that the variation in the stated content of salt, fat and so on is 30 per cent. That seems very generous, and it should be addressed.

Kevin Brennan: The Food Standards Agency is conducting a review on that very point, and I hope that a consensus will emerge that will mean that all manufacturers and retailers of processed foods agree on the right system for giving consumers accurate
17 Jan 2008 : Column 351WH
information about the nature of what they are consuming. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that we are straying a little, but he makes an important point in relation to obesity.

Returning to school sport and the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough, he mentioned that he had slightly more choice than I did in my school. I may have been unfair to my former physical education teacher, Mr. Geoff Bodman. When I was in school many decades ago, we played other sports, although representing the school in rugby was the one that was most available. We also did cross-country, which I did not particularly like but had to participate in, athletics, basketball and cricket, so there was a bit more choice.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) made a fair point that the ’60s and ’70s were not necessarily golden eras of PE, but I believe there is a consensus—I am not making a party political point—that things went wrong in the ’80s and ’90s, and that it was necessary to return to the subject to reinvigorate school sports and bring about the quiet revolution that everyone has acknowledged.

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough also made important points about the need to ensure that we can reproduce best practice, particularly in involving girls in physical activity and PE. Of course, the great challenge always to Government is getting best practice replicated across the board. It is not an easy thing to do, but, clearly, having a national strategy and a network such as the one that we are trying to set up is a way of trying to achieve that.

My hon. Friend made a good point about the so-called difficult-to-reach groups. He said that they need role models—not just great Olympians but people like them who are getting involved in sport and, in many cases, in volunteer activities around sport. We very much understand that point and take it to heart.

Coaching was raised by my hon. Friend and other contributors to the debate. He is right in saying that it is crucial and central to achieving improvement in participation in school sport. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) described his unfortunate experiences as a young man. They were, perhaps, all too common in those days. However, by the end of November 2007—just three months ago—funding awards had been made to support 3,360 community sports coach posts, of which 3,089 were operational, including nearly 500 funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. There is significant investment in community sports coaches.

Next Section Index Home Page