Skip to main content

School Sports (Colchester)

Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2010

Although school sport partnerships are nationwide, I wish to concentrate on just one partnership in my constituency as an example to highlight how important they are for every school and every child in the country. I will first set out the national scene. The Government want to save £162 million by scrapping the highly successful school sport partnerships. That is a significant sum, but in the context of the nation’s total public spending it is not, and cutting it would be a false saving.

The sum is equivalent to about half the combined wage bills for the two premiership football clubs that played last night—Manchester United and Arsenal. The total wage bill for all the premiership clubs, boosted by the vast sums they receive from television, comes to more than £1.3 billion, according to research conducted by Deloitte and kindly provided to me by the House of Commons Library. Are we seriously saying that the well-being of around 8 million school children in their developing years and, perhaps more importantly, their prospects for better health in adulthood, are considered to have such a low priority that cutting that money from the education budget is acceptable?

I propose that, in the spirit of joined-up government, the Government should get a grip on the mismanagement of football in this country. Professional football is awash with money, but it is being squandered on grotesque salaries and on the huge amounts of money that are lost from the game and find their way to parasitic agents who contribute nothing to football and instead bleed it.

I urge the coalition Government to introduce a football school sports fund—FSSF—by placing a 10% levy on the turnover of premiership football clubs. That would comfortably cover the £162 million needed to fund the school sport partnerships. After all, many of the young participants will be wearing replica shirts of clubs such as Manchester United and Arsenal. In that way, at least some of the huge sums of money sloshing around the premiership would be put to more beneficial purposes than lining the pockets of the few. It would fund the future fitness, health and sport prospects of every child in the country. It would support the many, rather than being kept by the very few.

I urge the Minister to take forward my suggestion as a means of saving the school sport partnerships at nil cost to the public purse. I am confident that my proposed FSSF would be widely welcomed by our schools and by those responsible for the nation’s health and sports development. Cross-departmental determination involving the Department for Education, the Department of Health, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Treasury could quickly bring that to fruition by the time the £162 million is due to be cut from the education budget. I shall personally bring the proposal to the attention of the Prime Minister.

Before speaking about the Colchester academy sports hub and the seven primary schools it covers, I will conclude the national overview by quoting in full an excellent article by the award-winning journalist Mr Patrick Collins, chief sports writer for The Mail on Sunday, who wrote in his column two days ago:

“When I left for Australia three weeks ago, Education Secretary Michael Gove was being furiously assaulted by just about everybody who understands the purpose and value of sport in schools. From Olympic champions to head teachers to concerned parents, they lined up to attack Gove’s crass and myopic decision to scrap direct funding for school sports partnerships.

There are 450 such partnerships across England, and these alliances of sports colleges, primary, secondary and special schools have broadened choices and increased opportunities for young people to take part in sport. The scheme has been stunningly successful in achieving its bold objectives. Yet now, at a time when the nation is seeking to establish an enduring legacy from the 2012 Olympics, Gove has decided to imperil all its gain with a piece of knee-jerk, doctrinaire cost-cutting.

In common with far too many members of this Cabinet, Gove seems to regard sport as the sweaty pastime of tiresome oiks. The fact that it promotes a healthy lifestyle, reduces juvenile crime, combats dependence on drugs and expands educational aspirations seems not to have crossed his radar. So he swings his little axe in a pathetic attempt to appear decisive.

Three weeks on, and with ignorance no longer an excuse, the wretched Gove is busily trying to present abject retreat as generous compromise—”

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he should not refer to the Secretary of State by name. He should refer to him as Secretary of State or by his constituency.

Mr Chairman, I am fully aware of that, but I am quoting from a newspaper article, so those are not my words. They are the words of wisdom of Mr Patrick Collins, who continued:

“Yet the assault continues. I doubt it will be halted this side of the first Cabinet reshuffle.”

Other than giving the Secretary of State the courtesy of putting the title “Mr” before his name, I agree with every word of what Mr Collins said. I disapprove of the manner in which the Secretary of State was addressed in the article, Sir, but I was quoting from it.

It is also worth noting how the proposals to axe school sports funding are viewed by Wenda Donaldson, the director of community sport at the Australian Sports Commission, who observed:

“I am absolutely devastated to hear of the cuts to the School Sport Partnership models. I am astounded that such an amazing and world-leading initiative has been lost to the communities they serviced.”

Well, they have not yet been lost; hopefully, today’s debate will help to save them.

From the world stage, let me now concentrate at a truly grass-roots local level. There are 12 sport hubs in the area covered by the Colchester-Blackwater school partnership, involving 86 schools, the majority of them in my constituency of Colchester. I will concentrate on just one sport hub, the one centred on the Colchester academy under the inspirational leadership of school sport co-ordinator Zoe Ford, and the seven primary schools that it serves. They are: from the Greenstead estate, St Andrew’s Infants school and St Andrew’s Junior school, and Hazelmere Infants school and Hazelmere Junior school; from the St Anne’s estate, Willow Brook primary, a fresh-start school formerly known as St Anne’s primary; Parsons Heath primary; and Roach Vale primary.

Last month, I visited Roach Vale primary to meet some of those involved in the school sport programme and witnessed the wonderful sight of youngsters playing football after school with two sports coaches, assisted by volunteers. I sensed that I was watching the big society in action. What I saw clearly showed the success of school sport partnerships.

From Mrs Ford, Mr Tom Evans, who is the assistant partnership development manager of the Colchester-Blackwater school sport partnership, and Mr Barry Hersom, principal of Colchester academy, established in September this year from the former Sir Charles Lucas arts college, I have been provided with the following information: it is a record of success, success, success, and of achievement, achievement, achievement. It would be extreme folly—an own goal, no less—for the coalition Government to end funding for school sport partnerships.

Four years ago, the average time spent on high-quality physical education in the Colchester academy family of schools was 118 minutes, but it is now 147 minutes. Mrs Ford, as is the case with school sport co-ordinators working for the other sport hubs, has worked alongside teachers in primary schools to increase their subject knowledge and confidence in teaching sport and physical education. That is of great importance when looking at the holistic approach to education.

I am advised that, as a direct result of the higher quality of sport on offer and more time spent on PE, there have been large improvements in the quality of teaching; that pupils’ attainment has increased and the quality of their learning has improved; that they are more physically active; and that they are adopting healthier lifestyles. Those are four positive points.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely and prescient debate. What he has described is, as he said at the beginning of his speech, a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm of what is happening across the country. I can speak from personal experience because in Scunthorpe I appointed a further education sports co-ordinator who was part of the network of school sports co-ordination that helped to move things forward. I applaud the hon. Gentleman for the way he is bringing the matter forward.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, because he had personal experience of the issue before entering the House. He can see how the partnerships have been a great success story—not only in his constituency and mine, but across the country. They have brought the education family of different schools and different age groups together in a way that I have not witnessed previously.

Clearly, the point I made before the intervention has significance for the NHS. Could the Minister state what discussions were held with the Secretary of State for Health before it was announced that school sport funding was to be axed, and what discussions were held with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport?

In addition to what happens in schools, the leadership shown by school sport co-ordinators has led to improved links with local clubs. This follows on from the point made by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). Coaches have been invited to provide taster sessions for pupils, and that has led to two-way improvement for the pupils and the clubs.

The notion that schools are not taking part in team games or inter-school competitions is wrong. The figures show that, four years ago, 56% of pupils in the Colchester academy family participated in inter-school competitions; the figure is now 100%, with 67% competing in at least three or more competitions each year.

The number of competitions and festivals has increased from six in 2005-06 to 18 in the current academic year. Every pupil in the Colchester academy family will attend the academy at least once for a tournament or festival in the course of the year. A virtual multi-skills athletics competition—that is how it was described to me—has been developed which allows schools and individual pupils to compete with each other without leaving their own school site, and with relatively little equipment. It has proved popular with all school years, from 1 to 6.

I am assured that greater competition has increased confidence and enjoyment in physical activity. Festivals have provided pupils with a broader and extended curriculum through the introduction of new sporting activities. I am further told that the extra competition has helped pupils develop their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. I know that the Secretary of State for Education and the Prime Minister would approve of that.

With the 2012 Olympics less than 20 months away, the sports hub has enabled all schools to link their curriculum to that major world event. There are further statistics to prove the value, in every meaning of the word, of this school sport partnership—I am sure that this is true across the country. A big bonus has been the increase in the number of pupils in each year group who have participated in one or more community sports, dance or multi-skills clubs with links to the particular school. For the Colchester academy family, in 2006-07, it was 21% of pupils; last year, it was 51% of pupils. That would never have happened without the school sport partnership.

It is also significant that non-sporty pupils, to coin a phrase, have become involved in an activity that they enjoy. There are greater links with community clubs, therefore helping to promote community cohesion—a further example of the big society in action. Another astonishing statistic—a direct result of the Colchester academy school sport partnership—is that currently 97% of pupils are actively involved in sports volunteering and leadership; five years ago, the figure was 28%.

My concluding observations, which were put to me in advance of today’s debate by the Colchester academy school sport partnership, are contained in the document, “Colchester Blackwater School Sport Partnership”. Pupils feel greater self-worth and make a positive contribution to the school and wider community. Classes are more cohesive as pupils work together as a motivational team. I am tempted to say that perhaps all political parties in the House of Commons might want to engage such services.

The leaders’ programme helps with the transition between infants and junior schools, as leaders provide excellent role models for younger children. There is better social cohesion as young pupils mix with old, pupil-organised activities result in improved behaviour at lunch time and pupils’ moral and social development improves.

Abandoning school sport partnerships would be a huge mistake and would affect today’s young people, including my two grandsons who are currently at primary school and my granddaughter who will be starting school in the year of the Olympics. I recognise the state of the nation’s economy, but I would argue that we should find ways of ensuring that we do not lose the highly successful school sport partnerships.

I opened this debate with a suggestion as to how funding could be provided in future years, and I urge the Minister to discuss that with colleagues across the Government.

It is a pleasure to serve for the second time today under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. This debate is very different from the earlier one.

I ought to start by saying to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) that we must stop meeting like this. This is the second time in the past couple of months that I have responded to an Adjournment debate that he has instigated. I congratulate him on securing this important debate. He opened it and kept the flow going with his usual colourful language. Never let it be said that he is a man who only brings problems to this House, because he started his speech with an interesting solution that would involve the football premiership in the cost of school sport partnerships. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and the Olympics will read that practical suggestion in the record, and I am happy to ensure that it is brought to his attention.

The hon. Gentleman’s speech was also quite original. Not only was he described as being timely and prescient—I believe that that was how the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) described him—but he was also an unashamed plagiarist, in that he used a large part of his speech to quote from yesterday’s Daily Mail. If only making speeches were that easy.

I am grateful for that. We would not want the good burghers of The Mail on Sunday not to get credit for the piece.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a committed campaigner in his constituency and in this House, and it is clear from his speech that he believes passionately in the work of the Colchester-Blackwater school sport partnership, which is also known as the Thurstable school sport partnership. Among other flowery references that he quoted from the article in The Mail on Sunday, he quoted a phrase that suggested that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education considers sport to be

“the sweaty pastime of tiresome oiks.”

May I make it clear again today, as I did in a debate last week on school sport, and as the Secretary of State himself made clear, that he and I and this Government are absolutely committed to the promotion of sport among the population in general and among our school-age citizens in particular? We want them to be involved with sport, particularly high-quality competitive sport, as early and as intensively as possible, and, most importantly, we want that involvement to be sustained through the school years and into adulthood. Too often, the experience in school drops off a cliff when children leave school. We must engender the ethos of the good of sport in children of all ages, and that must be carried forward into adulthood.

As the hon. Gentleman said, sport is good not only for physical health but for mental agility, its socialising benefits, the community engagement that it brings about, teamwork experiences and the personal development of children. It is not a question of being in any way against sport or in any way trying to undermine it. We want more sport, better quality sport and more sustained sport in schools. It is a question of how, not if, and it is important to make that absolutely clear. That underlies the changes that we are looking to make in how sport is delivered.

We are aware of the good work being done in many school sport partnerships, which have played an important part in helping to re-establish physical education and sport as a central part of school life. The Thurstable/Colchester-Blackwater partnership is a good example of that.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and I pay tribute to the work of Adam Finch, partnership development manager at the Thurstable/Colchester-Blackwater partnership, and his team for the excellent work that they have done improving the standards of PE and sport for their young people. I was especially pleased that an impressive number of young people are taking part in intra-school sporting competitions. However, although that partnership is performing well in a number of areas, in some year groups it is still not delivering inter-school competition at a level that the Government would like to see and the numbers taking part in competitive sport, which we would like to be better promoted, have fallen slightly below the national average in years 6, 7 and 8.

Did I understand the Minister correctly? Do those figures relate to what was happening within what we call the Colchester-Blackwater school sport partnership? If what he has said is correct, does he accept that those figures are still vastly better than they were four or five years ago, before the partnerships started, and that removing the partnerships will do considerable damage to the figures that he has just quoted?

In terms of the participation and rates and where the information has come from, the hon. Gentleman gave those figures. One does not deny that. I am saying that the experience and the figures are patchy in different parts of the country and in his constituency. Some partnerships appear to be achieving a great deal more than others. I am not trying to take away from where progress has been made. We question the level of competitive sport, the quality of the sport and its sustainability and whether partnerships are changing the ethos of sport in schools, which is what we need to do.

Let us remember that when the school sports partnership scheme was first funded from 2003, it was never intended to be a permanent arrangement; it was all about promoting sport from a low level and, hopefully, being able to set schools free to be able to carry that work forward. Seven years and £2.4 billion on, we cannot afford to continue that level of funding. We are questioning whether we are getting best value for money and whether we can get better bang for our buck, looking at alternative ways of providing sport in schools. That is what this is all about: not if, but how.

From figures on sports where participation has fallen and those relating to the number of schools offering particular sports, it is an indisputable fact that, after the commitment of £2.4 billion, the number of schools providing gymnastics, rounders, netball, hockey and rugby union has fallen. The number of schools offering swimming has not changed: it was 84% in 2003-04, before £2.4 billion was spent, and it is 84% now, still. There has been no increase in participation in a significant number of sports.

The taxpayer is entitled to better for the not inconsiderable sum that has been spent in the past seven years. That is why we feel that a new approach with a renewed focus on competition is needed to make an impact. To do this, the Government want to build on the good work already being done by schools to encourage more pupils to play competitive sport in their own school and against other schools.

Although school sport partnerships have helped schools to increase participation rates in a range of areas targeted by the previous Government, they have also locked schools into a rigid network while forcing them to achieve a series of targets that this Government feel impedes schools’ ability to promote sport. The Government are concerned that, despite this heavy focus on targets, the proportion of pupils playing competitive sport regularly has remained disappointingly low. Only some two in every five pupils play competitive sport regularly in their own school and only one in five plays regularly against other schools. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has concluded that the existing network of school sport partnerships is neither good enough value for money, nor likely to be the best way to help schools achieve their potential in improving provision for competitive sport.

The hon. Gentleman asked what discussions have taken place with colleagues in other Departments, particularly with the Secretaries of State for Health and for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has had a number of meetings with those two Cabinet colleagues, particularly the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, as have I. I sit on the interdepartmental steering group on the schools olympics, which is one proposal being advanced by this Government. There has been considerable engagement between officials in all three Departments. I had responsibility for children’s health in the shadow Health team, under the now Secretary of State for Health, where we had extensive discussion on this matter. We need to tackle not only what goes in but what comes out, in terms of the obesity problem and the activity underachievement. We need to take a two-pronged approach.

In lifting the many requirements placed on them by the previous Government’s PE and sport strategy, the Government believe that schools will be able to use their new freedoms to enable more pupils to play competitive sport. I understand that this decision has not been popular in some quarters. I recently met a group of exceedingly impressive young ambassadors who voiced their concerns eloquently when delivering a petition last week. However, I am convinced that this decision is the right one to ensure that the next generation of young people enjoys and benefits from sport as never before, while laying the foundations for a lasting sporting legacy from 2012.

I have offered to meet a wider group of young sports ambassadors, after we announce our alternative proposals, to try to engage them fully in the way ahead.

The Minister’s response will not be recognised by the people in the Colchester academy family, whom I have met and on whose behalf I called the debate. Would he accept an invitation to meet people and see what happens on the ground? I think that he might be pleasantly surprised.

I am always grateful for invitations and the Secretary of State for Education is always keen to devolve invitations to his ministerial team. I have had a number of similar offers from many colleagues, not surprisingly, among the many letters that I have received on this subject. I have visited schools and engaged in physical activities in those schools. The hon. Gentleman is good at issuing invitations to Ministers to visit his constituency; he was good at issuing them to the previous Government and the previous Secretary of State for Education was good at passing them on to the Minister with responsibility for schools, who spent most of his time heading towards East Anglia. If I can make a diversion to take in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I will endeavour to do so at some stage in future. In principle, yes; in practice, we will see how the diary pans out or I will never get any work done in this place and I will not be able to answer his frequent debates in the House.

The Secretaries of State for Education and for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, in consultation with experts in sport and alongside officials from both Departments, are considering how to take things forward in the best interests of schools and the pupils and parents they serve. One way of doing that will be launching a national Olympic and Paralympic-style sports event that I have already mentioned, which will form the pinnacle of a pyramid of school sport competitions. Other layers will include intra-school, inter-school, local authority or county level competitions. Every school, including mainstream and special schools, will be given the opportunity to get involved. I am keen to ensure that pupils with disabilities are fully engaged in the process. I am particularly keen to meet representatives from Paralympics and disability sports organisations. We intend to use £10 million of lottery funding, distributed by Sport England, to establish this competition for young people.

While I am on the subject, let me dispel the myth that competitive sport is elitist. Competitive sport inspires people to be the best that they can be and should be a vibrant part of school life for all pupils. Sport should be for everyone. That is why we want schools to set up sports teams that cater for players of all abilities. Anyone, from the most serious football player to the pupil who enjoys a kick-about for fun, should be given the opportunity to learn the values of competitive sport and to enjoy and benefit from that experience. We want schools to have not just first teams, but second, third and fourth teams, as there were when I was at school. Indeed, in 10 schools 100% of pupils were playing regular competitive sports against other schools and in 320 schools all the pupils are regularly taking part in intra-school competitions. That does not sound like elitism to me.

We want to see a sharp reduction in the bureaucratic burden on schools, leaving them free to focus on doing what is right for their students. The previous Administration’s school sport programme was about telling schools what to do. First, it specified how many hours of sport were to be made available to pupils, by schools, each week, starting with 75% doing two hours by 2006, then 85% doing two hours by 2008, rising to all children doing four hours by 2010, reaching the ever-more prescriptive heights of five hours of sport for all five to 16-year-olds by 2011. A pupil who joined a secondary school in September 2004 would be expected to do two hours of PE and sport a week by 2006, four hours by 2010 and five hours by 2011. How can schools be expected to make decisions about the best needs of their pupils while trying to deal with the straitjacket of such central control?

Secondly, it created a new hierarchy of people to run the programme for schools, including competition managers and senior competition managers—a new hierarchy of people telling other people what to do. Every one of those people was committed to improving local school sport, but I fear that, at best, they enabled schools to leave sport to someone else and, at worst, they stifled schools’ ability to provide an offer that was best for the needs of their schools and their pupils. That neither enables innovation—

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).