Defeat on penalties always brings bitter disappointment, but nobody can argue that Italy deserved to beat England last weekend. Even the style of the Italian penalties, including a “Panenka” from Pirlo, was a demonstration of the Italians’ dominance. England had heart, energy and drive, but lacked the crucial technical skill when it mattered most.
Surprising as it may sound, England’s footballing failure stems from the same problem, if history is any guide, that will see privately educated athletes make up a disproportionate amount of Britain’s 2012 Olympic medal winners.
When it comes to sport, our state schools are failing.
Across Britain teachers struggle to squeeze into the school day everything the curriculum demands. The last thing many want is then to give up their evenings and weekends to supervise school sport. The result? Most pupils receive under two hours of physical education a week. No wonder over half our Olympic medallists this century came from independent schools, which educate just 1 in 14 British children. That means public school pupils are seven times as likely as state school pupils to become Olympic medallists.
Of course, physical education is not just about producing gold medallists. The benefits for the development, health and education of young people are enormous. For this reason school sport must encourage participation as well as find future champions. We need a radical new manifesto for sport which sees sports funding spent more intelligently, local clubs more involved in school sport, and children given more choice.
The Government understands the excitement of London 2012 provides an opportunity to reinvigorate school sport, but it may not have fully grasped the sheer size of the mountain that needs to be climbed. Playing fields are under threat. Local authorities are cutting funding. The number of 16-19 year olds playing sport three times a week has fallen by over 100,000 since London won its bid to host the Games.
How can we reverse this decline?
First, we need closer ties between schools and local clubs.
Our future sports stars come from grassroots networks of volunteers, coaches and clubs. Seb Coe trained with Hallamshire Harriers. Amir Khan boxed at Bury ABC. Everton scouts spotted Wayne Rooney playing for Copplehouse Colts in Liverpool. But these clubs are still scandalously underused in the development of school sport. Yesterday the Government announced plans to create links between 4000 clubs and schools in England. That is a step in the right direction, but we need to be much more ambitious to ensure every pupil in Britain has access to the enthusiasm and expertise local clubs possess.
Second, wherever possible every primary school should have a dedicated and qualified sports teacher. For many children, school sport is their only guaranteed chance to play regular sport. Yet according to recent research 40% of newly qualified primary school teachers have received fewer than six hours of training to teach it. Many admit they are concerned about their ability to teach sport properly. For the sake of our nation’s future health and sporting success, physical education must be taught to the highest standard.
Of course, sometimes this is not practical when budgets are tight and time is at a premium. We need a scheme which lets pupils choose which sports they play and gives them access to enthusiastic, knowledgeable coaches who help them reach their full potential, but does not rely exclusively on schools to provide that physical education.
Choice is vital because young people will excel at the sports they enjoy, not those they are forced to play. Our future Olympic high jumpers and table tennis players should not be forced to spend their sports lessons playing football or rugby because that’s what their school does. If the money followed the choice of the child and the enthusiasm of the coaches, we could transform school sport.
The solution is a voucher scheme for school sport. This radical reform would see physical education funds given not just to schools, but to local clubs and approved coaches. Sports teachers would liaise with local clubs, and at the beginning of every academic year schools could host a “Fresher’s Fair” style event showcasing what those clubs had to offer. Pupils would have vouchers which they could place with the sports they wanted and the organisation they choose, from football, swimming and hockey to archery, dance and gymnastics.
A voucher system would extend access to club sport to millions of children, increasing uptake, choice and achievement in sport both inside and outside school hours. This would have huge benefits for young people. As well as the obvious health benefits, playing sport builds character. It teaches tenacity, discipline, social skills and how to win and lose graciously. Empirical evidence shows young people who succeed at sport are more likely to succeed in other areas of their life too.
Once in every political generation, circumstances combine to create the opportunity for truly transformative and lasting change. For sport, that moment is now. London 2012, Britain’s first Olympic Games in 64 years, is the opportunity for our best athletes to triumph and showcase our ability to host the greatest show on earth.
But the real legacy of the Olympics must be more than gold medals and fond memories. As well as revitalising some of our poorest communities, London 2012 is a once in a lifetime chance to inspire a generation of young people to put down their games consoles and play more sport. We should have the vision, courage and determination to take it, and to introduce a policy that will liberate the untapped talents of millions of youngsters.