Sunday, 12 August 2012

When the cheering stops the real legacy of 2012 will start; and it won’t be pretty.

Prime Minister David Cameron has called for a ‘big cultural change’ in school sports in the UK to instil a more ‘competitive ethos’ and capitalise on the success of Team GB. London Mayor Boris Johnson said something similar about how he could ‘see the benefits of sport and what it does for young people’, only did so with more eccentricity.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC’s ‘World at One’ programme that the government planned to invest £1billion in school sports over the next four years. This initiative was, he said, about ‘empowering teachers, empowering heads and getting an ethos inside schools and particularly when it comes to sport about the role of competitive sport and the values that can give young people.’

Later, when challenged about the sale of twenty one school playing fields sanctioned by the coalition government on LBC radio David Cameron attacked some members of the teaching profession for ‘not wanting to join in and play their part’ and said that too many schools ‘did not want to have competitive sport’ as part of their curriculum. Getting the chaps out playing rugger is a bit tricky though if the big field behind the school has had a Tesco Express built on it, but I don’t suppose that sort of thing happens down Eton way.

Criticism of the government’s sudden enthusiasm for all things sporting came from Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers who said that school sports needed the ‘support of government’ not shifting of the blame for the selling off of playing fields and the huge cuts made to the School Sports Partnership. Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg criticised the government for abandoning the target of providing two hours of PE every week for pupils in state schools and Labour leader Ed Milliband said the government had to do ‘a lot of hard thinking’ about how to keep young people engaged with sport.

When it comes to jumping on a bandwagon the average politician, and the current crop are very average, make Usain Bolt look like the slowest of slow coaches. They’re even quicker off the mark if they can mix shallow opportunism with a chance to exercise their favourite prejudices.

As a result we are treated to Citizen Dave playing, again, the populist card and weighing into stereotypical lefty teachers with an ideological commitment to mediocrity for all. The existence of such people is a right wing fantasy; but a remarkably durable one since much of the press buys into it.

Actually things are a little more complicated. When it comes to funding elite sport the best thing the government can do is hand the cash over to the experts and let them get on with things. The secret of success for so many of Team GB’s gold medal winners is, along with personal determination and technical skill, operating mostly underneath the radar. As a result their successes and failures are way stations en route to their ultimate goal rather than invitations to engage in hysterical optimism or soul sapping introspection, as is often the case with the fortunes of the England football team.

Where the government could and should play a part is in promoting sport in schools and the wider community; at the moment it is failing miserably. However hard he tries the prime minister cannot wriggle out of his government’s complicity in the selling off of playing fields across the country, attacking a teaching profession that has been suffocated by bureaucracy and demoralised by constant criticism is just a cynical attempt to cover his tracks.

While we’re on the point a large slice of criticism should be dropped onto the plate of local authorities who insist on keeping school sports facilities locked up at weekends and during the school holidays. If we are serious about getting more young people playing sport then they need somewhere to do so and coaches to help hone their skills, surely this is a better thing to spend money on that the fatuous nonsense of the Olympic torch relay?

A suitable amount of thought should also be given to the fact that 2012 will be a year with a legacy that has nothing to do with the Olympics. This is the year when the full effects of the coalition’s economic policies began to be felt in earnest, through, for example, in rises in homelessness, mental health problems and terrifying levels of youth unemployment. Far from inspiring a generation we are at risk of abandoning one altogether.

The Olympics have provided a sort of cultural sugar rush, for two weeks Britain has been the centre of the world and our national mood has lifted as a result, but such a rush is always followed by an almighty crash. The economy will still be moribund, our national institutions will still fail to inspire public confidence and our elected representatives will still have no idea what to do.

As golden summer gives way to gloomy autumn the party conference season is fast approaching, it is a sure bet that all three party leaders will find some way of incorporating the Olympic ideals of ‘faster’, ‘higher’, ‘stronger’ into their keynote speech along with a pledge to ‘go for gold’ in the year to come. What they won’t do, even though it is what we need most from them, is provide a convincing picture of how they will restore hope to a country that even though it staged a successful Olympics still grows poorer, more divided and angrier by the day.

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