For the last eight years I have been funded to research and evaluate the delivery of various sport initiatives in schools and with young people. This work has been funded by agencies such as the Youth Sport Trust and Sport England, by charities such as 4Children and StreetGames, by sponsors such as Coca-Cola and LloydsTSB, and by sport governing bodies such as the Football Association.
Across these projects data has been collected from many thousands of schoolchildren and many more thousands of teachers. Collectively and consistently, this evidence provides the following insights relating to the current debate on school sport and the need for school sport partnerships:
1) Primary Teachers: Primary schools very rarely have teachers with PE training or sport delivery experience, and often the PE co-ordinator role is given to early-career teachers because the more experienced teachers lead on subjects such as literacy and numeracy. Successive research has consistently shown that not only do primary teachers need help to deliver PE and sport, they need help to find help to deliver PE and sport. Primary teachers have consistently said that they do not have the time to seek out, nor to quality assure, the sport expertise that they need to deliver a quality PE, sport and physical activity programme in their schools. This suggests a clear need to maintain a ‘supply’ network, albeit necessarily slimmed down from the current school sport partnership system, from which teachers pressed for time and inexperienced in PE and sport, can commission quality provision.
2) Schoolchildren: One of the problems for sport promotion with adults is that around 50% of the adult population are sport averse. However, children and young people are rarely averse to sport as a whole, this is an attitude that develops in later life. But, children and young people are often averse to particular sports. Research has consistently shown that while children and young people may say, for example, “I hate football”, this rarely means that they will not try other sports. Consequently, the best way to increase sports participation among children and young people is to provide a balanced and extended programme of sports provision. Recent research with primary school children showed that the novelty of new sports was attractive to the children, regardless of how much they said they liked sport to begin with. Therefore, an effective PE and school sport system must be structured to provide as wide a range of activities as possible. Schools themselves cannot be expected to source and quality assure such a wide range of activities, thus a co-ordinating network is needed.
3) Competition: Undoubtedly competition motivates some children and young people, and promoting intra and inter school competition is an excellent way to encourage those children who already play sport to play more often or to improve their performance and skills. However, research with children and young people has consistently shown that those who are the least active are not only put off by participating in competitions, they are also put off by playing sport in an environment that is shaped by competition. Detailed qualitative research has shown that for these young people, a focus on skills, delivered by someone perceived to be a leader rather than a coach, is key to developing participation and enjoyment. High quality provision of this nature is much more difficult for schools to locate than more traditional input from sport coaches, and so a point of contact to identify providers in whom schools can have confidence is required.
4) The Olympic and Paralympic Games: A School Olympics is a high profile way to gain media coverage and involve commercial sponsors, but a competitive Olympic-branded competition will serve only to enhance the competition experience of those children and young people who already play sport. Research in the last year has shown that the Oympic and Paralympic Games can do several things for young people: i) it can enhance the experiences and enjoyment of those who already play; ii) it can be a way to introduce a wider range of sporting opportunities to young people who have been put off by traditional sports such as football, rugby and netball; iii) it can use the celebration and carnival of the event to draw the least active into broader physical activities such as streetdance or cheerleading. However, a competitive School Olympics cannot deliver this, it can only enhance the experiences of those who already play. A wider expertise in using the values, images and history of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to fire children and young people’s imagination is needed if London 2012 is to have a significant and sustainable impact on sport participation.
In summary, some young people want more competition and are inspired by Olympic and Parlympic stars, but they are already playing. Less engaged children and young people require a wider range of activities, provision and support to find a sport or activity that will enable them to become lifelong participants. Unfortunately, as schools and teachers often recognise themselves, they do not have the time, the experience or the expertise to locate or deliver this provision and support. Empowering schools to make choices about their own provision is a laudable goal, but devolving funding is not the same thing as empowering choice. Such empowerment requires that schools have confidence that there is a system of high quality sports provision supply from which they can choose, otherwise the most likely choice will be not to commission sport provision at all.