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The sugar tax: a sweet deal for school sport?

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In recent months the big announcement for school sport – an increase in funding for primary school sport as a result of the sugar tax – has received relatively little attention. Not surprising, given the radical education reforms that dominated the education agenda, and subsequent u-turn-but-not-really-a-proper-u-turn. And, you know, all that stuff about the EU.

So is a funding increase the start of a bright new era for school sport, firmly at the heart of our education system? Or just the next in a line of ad hoc initiatives that seem to characterise the short term approach towards school sport strategy?

Doubling the PE and sport premium fund to £320 million a year from 2017 is, in isolation, excellent news. The premium has shown it can enhance the quality of PE teaching, and increase pupil engagement and participation in sport, and continued investment in sport was also highlighted by school leaders as the most important factor in maintaining high quality PE provision in a Youth Sport Trust survey published last year.

So the government’s funding commitment is most welcome, and coincides with a recently published national sport strategy. But is it really the first steps of a positive future for school sport? The signs are encouraging but I’ll probably reserve judgement for now, especially in the political and economic uncertainty that has engulfed post-referendum Britain. A new government may, of course, have very different priorities.

Nonetheless, with the Rio Olympics less than a month away it seems apt to cast our minds back to London 2012, with its narrative of inspiring a generation and building a sporting legacy for young people.

Central to creating this legacy has been a commitment to improving primary school sport provision, first through the PE and sport premium and now the primary PE specialist initial teacher training pilot scheme. So too has increasing access to competitive school sport, as seen in the growth of the successful School Games.

But as essential as these things are, for me a legacy for school sport is about looking beyond primary age provision and competitive sport initiatives. Increasing the number of pupils of all ages participating in school sport – competitive or not – across all phases of education, and the amount of time they spend doing so, should be fundamental to a comprehensive legacy.

Yet steps in the post-2012 era seem to have prohibited this.

Take, for example, the previous government’s decision to remove £162 million per year worth of funding for school sports partnerships (SSPs), which was recognised as having a negative impact including on opportunities for young people to participate in more school sport by the education select committee. The decision has arguably created something of a postcode lottery, whereby access to quality sporting provision in schools varies greatly across the country. This has been particularly evident in secondary schools, which do not have ring fenced funding for sport, and is at a detriment to a long-term Olympic legacy.

So too has removing the requirement for all pupils to complete at least two hours of sport per week, which has unsurprisingly coincided with a drop in the number of hours pupils have spent taking part in sport per week between 2010 and 2015.

And it goes without saying that selling off thousands of playing fields over the last 35 years has hardly sowed the seeds for school sport to flourish.

It is indicative of how sport is often a peripheral issue in the education landscape, and the disjointed way that policy towards it is conceived. Britain’s elite-level athletes have flourished in recent years. Yet good initiatives for school sport have been undermined by short-term political decisions, and the absence of a coherent long-term strategy. Policies such as the PE and sport premium cannot, on their own, provide an appropriate foundation for school sport. It has to be “embedded in a long-term strategy, with sustained funding” to ensure young people are fitter, healthier and more engaged in sport.

I hope this proposed funding commitment and national strategy for sport go some way to addressing this. There are encouraging signs in the strategy – in particular that it highlights the need to address a drop off in sporting engagement at secondary school age, especially among girls.

But what further actions will be taken beyond an increase to the PE and sport premium is less clear. Only a quick look at recent policy shows how easy it is to produce soundbites about the importance of school sport, but at the same time take action that stunts, rather than enables, quality sport provision in the long-term.

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