In the first of her monthly series for Mr Fox, Olympian Gail Emms stresses the importance of sport in UK schools
I could list so many attributes that I believe school sport can help instill in children and young adults: confidence, discipline and teamwork are just the tip of the iceberg. And I don’t think this is ever disputed – the majority of schools recognise the positive role sport can play in helping change the lives of young people.
According to a Youth Sport Trust report in 2014, 95% of schools see its role in the development of life skills; 91% recognise its contribution to achievement and 67% of primary schools and 75% of secondary schools identify its impact on attainment.
Yet, even though schools know the importance of physical education, it is still a lottery as to whether they are able to deliver it. Time, facilities and the small fact of primary school teachers having only 4–10 hours of training in PE during the whole of the year studying (YST) means that the priority is often placed elsewhere.
Who can blame them when money is scarce, the school roof needs fixing and more IT equipment would be very much appreciated?
In 2014, schools offered Key Stage 1 students an average of 102 minutes of PE per week and key stage 2 students an average of 114 minutes per week (Source: YST, 2014) but if you consider that 79% of boys and 84% of girls aged 5–15 years old did not meet the minimum recommended guidelines for physical activity – 60 minutes every day – we need to ask if our schools (or we as parents) are doing enough for the physical wellbeing of children?
In 2010, just two years before London hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the government cut school sport funding from £162 million a year to £0 as part of the austerity measures. As a Youth Sport Trust Ambassador I have seen first-hand the impact that school sport has on groups of 10–13 year old students, from boys with anger management issues to girls with low self-esteem. I felt compelled to do something about it.
I drafted a letter to the Prime Minister and asked my fellow Olympians and Paralympians if they felt strongly enough that they would add their name to the letter of support for school sport funding. I was overwhelmed by the response.
In three days, 79 athletes had pledged their support including medallists Denise Lewis, Darren Campbell, James DeGale, Mark Foster and Tom Daley. This, along with many other petitions and uproar, led to the government announcing a partial U-turn: £112 million over 3 years. Then from 2013, primary schools were given up to £9000 each to be spent on sport and physical education.
Kate Richardson-Walsh, GB women’s hockey captain and Olympic bronze medallist in London 2012 said, “Having come through the school system myself I am very aware that sport in this country is more and more for the wealthy. Private schools will potentially always have some form of support from private investors/parents. What about the children attending state schools up and down the country? All children, no matter which school they attend, should be given the opportunity to play and enjoy a wide variety of sports.”
I personally believe that I would not have achieved the titles and medals that I have if it wasn’t for school sport. I didn’t even play much badminton really, but the lessons I learnt as part of the school hockey, netball, athletics, rounders, tennis, swimming and cross-country teams, set me on the path to Olympic silver medal and World, European and Commonwealth gold.
It is definitely ‘character building’ freezing on the hockey pitch, or coming back from the cross-country plastered in mud and missing a shoe. And the diplomacy needed in netball would impress a UN ambassador.
When I look back at my time at school, the school sports fixtures are my favourite memories by far. My school, Dame Alice Harpur, was very successful at hockey. Thinking of our coach trips singing Tina Turner’s Simply the Best still bring me to tears, not only with laughter but emotion, as many of those girls are still my good friends 20 years later.
To leave physical literacy and education just to the schools would be unfair. Parents are quick to blame schools or expect them to do everything. A healthy, active lifestyle outside of school would compliment the learning and social aspects of school sport in the curriculum.
Primary school PE should be fun, engaging and a necessity in my eyes. The human body and the way it can move should be celebrated – at what better age than when children are full of wonderment?
If children are to start learning good PE habits from 4 or 5 years old, they are more likely to carry this on, not only into secondary school, but into later life too. How can we put a price on that?
Gail Emms MBE is a former badminton player winning Olympic silver medal in Athens 2004 as well as World, European and Commonwealth titles. She has two boys, Harry, 5, and Oliver, 2. She lives in Milton Keynes and combines motherhood with media work, mentoring and promoting healthy active lifestyles for children and families. Follow Gail on Twitter @gailemms
How important were sports to you when choosing a school? Do you notice a difference in your children when they engage in regular team sports?