January 19: Jayne Dowle: The dire consequences of neglecting school sport

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OUR attitude towards school sport is just so British: we might have hated it ourselves, but that doesn’t stop us from being keen as mustard to inflict it on our children.

I put my hands up. My own days of school sport are a painful memory of purple mottled legs, cold showers, mouldy Aertex shirts and that terrible autumn day in the second-year when we lost 17-0 at netball. I was the goalkeeper.

Still, I want my own two children to participate, to enjoy it even. This is not because I am a cruel and unfeeling hypocrite. It’s because with the benefit of hindsight I can see the value in it.

I couldn’t see the point when I was 12, but I certainly can now. It builds an awareness of your own body; what kind of physical activity suits you, and what doesn’t. For children without financial access to football teams and dance classes, it provides an opportunity they might not otherwise get.

It fosters a spirit of achievement – individually or as part of a team. It gets pupils out of the classroom and into the fresh air. If they find something they excel at, it could inspire them to take a sport further, to play for their town or county, even their country.

And conversely, it teaches youngsters another valuable lesson. If you truly do hate it – as I did – you learn to understand that through life there will always be things you have to do which you don’t want to.

For all those reasons, school sport should be cherished and supported.

It is galling then that new research from the Youth Sport Trust finds that school sport is in a worse state than ever. The charity says that children born today are forecast to be 35 per cent less active by 2030 than those in 1961. What happened to all that talk of an “Olympic legacy”?

Three years after the London games, we’re in a worst state than ever.

I don’t think it is fair to blame the children. They are castigated for spending too much time in front of a screen. Told off for lying about on the sofa watching TV. Bridled at for refusing to walk further than the end of the road and treating their parents like taxi drivers.

Only last week the University of Cambridge published a study which said that lack of exercise could be killing twice as many people as obesity. The researchers found that across Europe, about 676,000 deaths a year can be attributed to general inactivity, compared with 337,000 from carrying too much weight.

It is telling that the magnitude of these figures were countered by a simple piece of advice: just 20 minutes of brisk walking a day would have substantial benefits. However, if a generation of children are growing up with no concept of regular exercise, how are they going to be persuaded to do undertake a brisk walk round the block?

Who is it who presides over this state of affairs? Adults like myself. As parents we allow them to get away with it. We should take responsibility for ensuring that our sons and daughters find a way of exercising that they enjoy, and do all that we can to support them in pursuing it.

And that includes you David Cameron. Despite all your airy promises, school sport has slipped even further down the agenda under your government. What did you imagine? That following the London Olympics, a generation of youngsters would burst off the starting blocks like extras from Chariots of Fire? How did the Prime Minister, and his overnment, expect this to happen when funding for sport in schools is constantly being shaved and the curriculum is becoming ever more crowded?

Thinking on, school sport has become muddier than a rugby field in the middle of winter. I suggest the next government should wipe the slate clean and start again. Start with ring-fencing investment for equipment, all-weather courts and playing fields. And ensure that every school has dedicated teachers who actually enjoy teaching sport, and aren’t just doing it under duress because no one else can be persuaded to throw bean bags around in the drizzle.

You might think other things are much more important in a manifesto. Indeed, school sport might interest you even less now than it did when you were hiding in the changing rooms hoping to avoid being picked for a team.

However, the following information from the Youth Sport Trust should be of concern to us all. Only 21 per cent of boys and just 16 per cent of girls are fulfilling the recommended minimum levels for physical exertion. And one in three primary school leavers would be clinically diagnosed as obese or overweight. Talk about an Olympic legacy. This is an inheritance which can do none of us any good.

The consequences are predicted to cost about £53bn for the British economy in terms of healthcare, unemployment and general indolence.

If you don’t believe in any of my other reasons for supporting school sport, surely these bare economic facts must hit you like a cricket ball in the solar plexus.