Tom Richmond: Politicians exposed as being left on their starting blocks

Failures to fund school sport appropriate highlight the flaws in politicians' policies
Failures to fund school sport appropriate highlight the flaws in politicians' policies
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IT seems only yesterday that Lord Coe stood up at the opening of the London Olympics and proclaimed: “This is our time, and one day we will tell our children and our grandchildren that when our time came, we did it right.”

From a sporting and volunteering perspective, Coe – the great middle distance runner who spent many of his formative years in Sheffield – delivered on the words that he uttered on this very night 12 months ago. Britain continues to enjoy an unprecedented run of sporting success.

If only the same could be said of those politicians who were tasked with delivering a grassroots sports revolution in return for the front row seats that they were allowed to occupy at the premier events. As well as George Osborne – a regular visitor to cycling’s velodrome – cutting sports funding in his latest spending review while protecting money for elite competitors, the Government is continuing to lose vital impetus over school sport policy like a long distance runner hitting the proverbial “brick wall” in the marathon.

Take this week’s education select committee report – headed by Beverley and Holderness MP Graham Stuart – into the issue.

It says schools must ensure “that all pupils” at primary school are given a firm grounding in PE. In other words, some teachers still regard this as an optional extra – despite the country’s obesity epidemic.

The report goes on: “School sport is too important to rely on occasional efforts at pump-priming; the Government must commit to a long-term vision for school sport accompanied by long-term funding.” I agree – too many politicians, like Osborne, still regard sport as a convenient PR opportunity to deflect attention away from their policy flaws – and this is why there is no robust funding strategy in place.

It gets worse. Stuart’s committee also reveals “clear evidence that the ending of the school sport partnerships funding has had a negative impact, including on the opportunities for young people to access competitive sporting opportunities in school”.

In other words, David Cameron – and others – are guilty of denying youngsters the chance to emulate their Olympic heroes by flawed funding decisions. Even though swimming is now part of the national curriculum, many schools still do not have access to a pool, another of the select committee’s observations, while plans to train 120 specialist PE teachers are only due to begin “this summer” according to the report.

It does not end here. MPs say the “ring-fencing of funds” is necessary to 
ensure money is spent on school sport – in other words current arrangements are full of loopholes – while more work needs to be done on the guidance for head teachers so any money is spent effectively. Evidently, “more work needs to be done to make it as practical and usable as possible”. This does not inspire confidence. My point is this. Given that there were seven years between Britain being awarded the 2012 Games, and the successful staging of then Olympics, why was more not done to give school pupils a sporting chance?

This shouldn’t be the subject of political head-scratching now; they’re the type of issues that should have been reconciled before the Olympics.

FORMER GP Gary Dakin is among those to have first-hand experience of the National Health Service’s failings at weekends. On being admitted to Doncaster Royal Infirmary with a chest infection – its seriousness meant he had to travel to hospital by ambulance – he then had to wait 24 hours for antibiotics that had been prescribed to treat his irregular heartbeat. He’s not alone; there are countless other stories of negligent care, some of which had a tragic ending. To me, the answer is this: radical surgery to NHS shift patterns so staffing levels are constant seven days a week. The challenge would be persuading more nurses, doctors and ancillary staff to give up their weekends.

Yet many, I suspect, would be happy to do so – especially those who would incur lower childcare costs if they took time off in the middle of the week to compensate for weekend working. This is how the major high street stores and utility firms operate. Can, therefore, the NHS afford to remain immune from changing lifestyles and flexi-working, especially when it is so clear that weekend care is being compromised by staff shortages?

DESPITE the Conservatives making significant inroads into Labour’s opinion poll lead, in part because of its increased confidence on key electoral issues like the NHS, there are still senior Tories calling for the coalition with the Lib Dems to end sooner rather than later.

I disagree. Competence – particularly on the NHS and the economy – will be a key issue at the 2015 election, and David Cameron and Nick Clegg should remember that they promised to govern for a full five years.

By getting on with the job of rebuilding the economy from the mess left behind by the last Labour government, the Tories and Lib Dems are far more likely to endear themselves to voters. They’ve also shown that they’re more than capable of providing stable government in spite of their differences on issues like Europe or energy. As such, Cameron needs to remember that all voters abhor disunity.

A UNITY of purpose from the Government will also offset Labour’s opportunism, such as Shadow Business Secretary Cuka Umunna complaining that parking fines for errant motorists are already too high and any further increase could kill off the high street. Wrong. If people parked less selfishly, there might be less congestion in those town centres that are struggling to survive.

HOW ungrateful can you become? The letter sent by Harriet Harman – sorry, Harperson to use the Shadow Culture Secretary’s politically-correct title – to Tour de France organiser Christian Prudhomme does not contain one word of thanks for his decision to bring the world’s biggest free to watch sporting event to Yorkshire next summer.

Instead Labour’s deputy leader whines and whinges about the Tour – won by Team Sky’s Chris Froome last weekend – being another example of where “women’s sport misses out to men’s sport”. She tells Prudhomme pompously and sanctimoniously to “organise a women’s race alongside the Grand Départ”. Women’s cycling is a great spectacle – I cheered loudly when Nicole Cooke won Olympic gold in 2008 and when Otley’s Lizzie Armitstead won silver in London a year ago – but there is a very simple reason why the Tour de France, or the Tour of Britain for that matter, do not have separate races: money and a lack of sponsorship.

Having jumped on this bandwagon, presumably because she has nothing helpful to say about Labour’s policies towards sport, perhaps “hopeless Hattie” can explain to Monsieur Prudhomme during his visit to Yorkshire how she would overcome this matter of economics.

AND, finally, don’t fret if you think the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge drew inspiration from the Chancellor over the name of their new baby and future King – George Osborne, let me remind you, was christened Gideon.