There’s some point to be made about lions led by donkeys. As the country gets unexpectedly enthusiastic about sport – all sport, any sport, but especially the sorts of sport that are played in school playing fields, the sorts of sport in which potential is spotted by PE teachers – the Government has decided to undermine it all. Our Team GB heroes drag in gold after gold, wearied and bloodied and broken but cheered to the rafters by a grateful nation, and the Government says: OK, you’ve had your fun, now let’s go and sell the nation’s PE departments for luxury flats.
It’s not quite that dreadful, but only not quite. Yesterday, it was revealed via a Freedom of Information request that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, had signed off on the sale of 21 school sports fields, despite a pledge to protect them. Today, it’s been announced that the Coalition plans to scrap the compulsory two hours of physical education a week for state schoolchildren. As Dan Hodges has pointed out on more than one occasion, it’s almost as though this Government doesn’t want to get re-elected.
I should be fair to them as far as possible. They’ve put out a press release saying that 14 of the 21 belonged to schools that had closed, and there were extenuating circumstances for the remaining seven. “We will only agree to the sale of school playing fields if the sports and curriculum needs of schools and their neighbouring schools can continue to be met,” said a DOE spokesman. The decision to scrap the two hours’ compulsory PE is dressed up as “trusting teachers and parents” and “stripping away the red tape”, which may be true, even if it is boring, empty, clichéd politicalspeak.
And, it must be said, I don’t know how good the evidence is that compulsory sport in schools improves children’s fitness or the participation in sport in later life. I found two relevant-looking studies on Google Scholar in a non-systematic 30-second search, both in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity: one, a 2008 Australian study, found no link between the amount of time spent on compulsory school sports and childhood or adult obesity; the other, a 2008 Canadian meta-analysis, found that “the overwhelming majority” of PE and physical activity programmes showed an improvement in fitness and may even have had a slight positive effect on academic achievement. For what it’s worth I suspect the latter is closer to the truth, although God knows I used to bunk off PE to go and smoke behind the sports centre when I was 15.
But there seems to be no suggestion, even if a deeper look at the evidence than I’ve taken does show that compulsory school sports are not as good for children as we think, that the Government is acting upon evidence at all. Nor is there any sign of a wider argument about spending, that we’re cutting everything else so why should sport be exempt. The Keynesian blood in me would say this is exactly the sort of infrastructure we should be spending money on in a recession, but I may be wrong; the Coalition could at least make a case. Instead, they want to talk about reducing the burden of “paperwork and form-filling” that compulsory PE brings, which is just the sort of thing politicians say when they put their mouths on autopilot.
Whatever the facts of it, it’s remarkably bad political judgment on the part of the Government to allow both of these pieces of news to break during the Olympics. They hand a vast open goal – if you’ll permit a sporting metaphor – to Ed Miliband, who will no doubt roll into the first PMQs of the next session on a sprint bike, dressed in a sweaty Team GB kit and singing Take Me Out To The Ball Game.