Friday, August 10, 2012

More school sport: A solution in search of a problem

Photo: Jusben from MorgueFile
The enormous success of the London Olympics has led our politicians into trying to outbid one another in their enthusiasm for physical education in schools. Boris Johnson, with his demand for two hours of sport a day, is currently in the lead.

Quite what all this sport is intended to achieve is not clear. Is it mean to make children happier or fitter or better behaved or more community minded?

Back in 2006, when school sport was being promoted as the answer to the obesity crisis, I wrote this:
Children were not thinner 20 or 40 years ago because of school sport. Organised games dominated the lives of boys in public schools and, to a lesser extent, grammar schools - even if many of them spent their time shivering on the wing and hoping the ball did not come near them. But for most children school sport was not that important. 
Children were thinner because they burnt energy in free play out of doors. What politicians should do is look at the forces which militate against their doing so today. Among them I would list the dominance of the motor car, the removal of authority figures from public space, the panic over child abduction and a culture that has left adults afraid to exert any sort of authority over children. 
The car can be tamed by home zones, with their planting and very low speed limits. We might begin to repopulate the public world by campaigning for a new generation of Routemasters with conductors in the next London Mayoral election. The panic over stranger danger is harder to tackle, but as a first step politicians could avoid stoking public anxiety. 
And adult authority? Perhaps children's freedom to play in the street was always balanced by an adult's right to tell them to play somewhere else if they became to irritating. The collapse of this sort of authority has not resulted in an age of freedom for children: instead they see their lives ever more closely policed by the state and its agents.
I did write a longer piece on this theme for Graham Watson's collection Liberalism - Something to Shout About. I must post it here one day - David Boyle once called it "brilliant" (hem, hem). At least I anticipated Boris Johnson's new Routemasters.

As to the current arms race amongst our politicians, I am sure there are children who would thrive on two hours of two hours of sport (just as some would love Stephen Twigg's schools run by the military) and the state system should be able to provide it for them. If they have the passion and drive that makes Olympic champions, the problem may be getting them to do anything else.

But for most children, an increase in school sport looks like a solution in search of a problem.

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