The politics of school sport


There is a long history of political intervention in the UK to encourage sports participation. In 1960, the Wolfenden report, Sport and the Community led by Sir John Wolfenden, was released. One of its main aims was to address what later became known as the ‘Wolfenden gap’ in sports provision – the disjuncture between school and community provision for sport, which was thought to be responsible for young people giving up sports participation on leaving school. Even then, there were concerns that the focus on ‘sport’ in the report was to the detriment of other forms of recreational physical activity:

“We should get rid of the word ‘sport’. ‘Sport’ implies games, and although they are perhaps the most important element, there are many people who do not like games, and there are other outdoor activities just as beneficial”Captain Walter Elliot (MP for Carshalton)

These concerns were realised when John Major’s government released Sport: Raising the Game (Department of National Heritage, 1995), which emphasised the benefits of promoting traditional competitive sport in schools, proclaiming that it taught “healthy sporting habits” (pp.6) and would enable young people to “[adopt] a healthy and active lifestyle in future years”.

However, it also had another purpose – talent identification:

“We must […] ensure that individuals with talent are identified quickly and systematically and that we make proper provision to allow sporting talent to flower.”

This became a continuing theme of government school sport and physical education policy, which was strengthened during the Blair years with the publication of A Sporting Future For All and Game Plan. These documents sought to professionalise the way school sport was run, improving levels of skill and performance in competitive sport and also providing a highly structured route to elite competition for talented young people. (As an aside, Game Plan also contained the admission that there was little evidence ‘mega-events’, such as the Olympic Games, had any effect on sports participation rates in the general population – see this post for more).

The egalitarian theme of “sport for all” (recreationally orientated participation, inclusive of those with low fitness or skill, common in mainland Europe) also ran through these documents, but was arguably of secondary importance to the elite sport aims. Indeed, a cynical reader (moi?) could come to the conclusion that encouraging mass participation by young people was a necessary first step in the process of identifying the talented minority.

Despite recent policy placing greater emphasis on increasing participation by all young people – aiming for 5 hours of school organised activity per week – and attempting to be more inclusive by providing a wider range of activities and ways in which to participate, the Olympics, government cuts, the academy programme and ideology of Michael Gove seem to have conspired to refocus current policy back toward the promotion of traditional competitive sport in schools, to the detriment of pretty much everything else.

It is clear that promoting ‘sport’ is a politically agreeable thing to do – you would be hard pressed to find  a politician who would disagree that it is. Being physically active is good for health and everyone likes the idea of their country doing well in international sports contests, but there may be undesired consequences of using young people as a medium through which to pursue national sporting glory. Traditional competitive sports are generally only participated in by children in school and elite athletes. The government should be under no illusions that focusing on these activities to the detriment of other types of physical activity may have unintended consequences for the promotion of active lifestyles. Traditional sports may be part of our heritage, but they are not part of the active lifestyle Zeitgeist.