Monday 20 December 2010

Can school sport funding u-turn be more than an Olympic figleaf?

There has been more than an element of "The Thick of It" in the government's partial u-turn on school sport funding, as Saturday's Guardian reported in explaining the timing of today's announcement.

Whitehall sources said the continuing outcry over school sport had to be ended before Cameron staged a high-profile visit to the Olympic Park in east London next week to turn on Christmas lights at the Olympic Stadium.

That means that it will be important to watch the detail closely (as Alastair Campbell has already warned, in noting that 'a headline is not a policy shift').

What the Conservatives had wanted to do today was to launch their "School Olympics" plan.

Its a good idea, which David Cameron launched one Monday morning - May 3rd, three days before the General Election as it happens.

The Conservative party has helpfully archived the press release.

"We all know that it would be good to have more competitive sport in our schools", Cameron said. "I think sport is incredibly important for not just fitness, not just teamwork but also learning about winning and losing and taking part and being part of a team."

Ministers were ready to announce over £20 million to fund this eye-catching new initiative with which the PM could be personally associated through the London Olympics of 2010. The Tories got sporting heroes including James Cracknell, Ben Ainslie and Ian Wright to put their names to it. (Though they might not be able to call it the 'School Olympics' (or 'the British Olympic Association School Games', as was officially planned).

But there was a small presentational problem, given the simultaneous cut of £162 million of ring-fenced funding for school sport. The School Olympics announcement would therefore coincide with redundancy notices being issued for school sport coordinators.

The reasoning behind the cut has fallen apart at every turn.

Ministers have backed away from claims attacking school sports partnerships - bizarrely quoting the statistic that only 20% were involved in inter-school sport competition as a sign of failure. (That sounds rather like the 'all shall have prizes' argument which the right claims is widely held on the left).

Ministers claimed that schools would now have the flexibility to replace the sports partnerships if they wanted. ("We're increasing spending on education overall, so headteachers can decide on their own priorities", said Michael Gove, in denying the sport money was a cut, claiming that the ring-fenced £162 million was being put back into general schools budgets - where it might be used for sport, or something else if schools preferrred.

So was the money going back to school budgets? No. Gove's claim was untrue. What was being proposed was just a straight funding cut.

David Cameron suggested there would be a rethink at Prime Minister's Questions on December 1st, responding to Labour's former sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe. The Department of Education responded that there wouldn't be a u-turn.

Today, there is a u-turn. It seems that £70 million - about 40% of the funding cut - is to be reprieved, though again the detail needs to be watched carefully.

It isn't just the number that should be scrutinised - but also whether the government has any serious intention to develop school sport beyond the next two years.

As Cameron can now more happily head to the Olympic stadium to turn on the Christmas lights, the policy u-turn seems to have been driven more by the profile of the London Olympics - and the potential for that to create political embarassment - than any commitment to or understanding of the long-term needs of sport in schools.

Note the details of government thinking as previewed in The Guardian.

In a deal to be announced imminently – which ministers hope will defuse the row – many of the 450 partnerships will be given a temporary reprieve, probably until after the 2012 Olympics in London.

The move will enable them to continue helping England's 20,100 schools increase pupils' participation in sport, especially competitive interschool sport.

But school sport isn't just for the 2012 Olympics - and there are few reasons for confidence that the government's change of mind would be sustained beyond it. It is important to keep the pressure up.

That the government's policy seems driven by ideological agenda is suggested by many of its evidence-free utterances in scrapping a policy without providing any replacement for an objective it says it shared. If the government wants to show that isn't the case, it should commission an independent review of how to increase participation in school sport - and set out a long-term strategy to sustain this.

The lure - and threat - of Olympic headlines have pressured Ministers to keep their word on the important of school sport for now.

But sport in our schools will now need a long-term solution which isn't dependent on ministers needing an Olympic figleaf.

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