The School Sports Debacle - Who Is Really At Fault?

Giles Marshall 9.43am

It’s great that David Cameron has been attending the London Olympics, and even better that he has been sufficiently enthused by the tremendous success of British athletes to call for more competitive sport in schools.

But is Mr Cameron naïve to put the blame for a ‘lack of competitive ethos’ on to teachers?

Or is he simply the latest in a line of Prime Ministers since Margaret Thatcher to pay lip service to the idea of sports in state schools while simultaneously cutting the funding that makes it possible?

The problem, as ever, lies with both government and school leaders. Since the education revolution of the 1980s, government has been immensely successful in focussing attention on academic results. The annual publication of exam league tables has forced schools into an ever more intense cycle of relentless grade chasing.

Good, you might think, for the academic side of education. Not so good, however, for all the other aspects of school life. School leaders have certainly got to grips with the idea that they need to show year-on-year consistent examination success. Sadly too many of them have taken a rather one-paced, narrow perspective, making exams their focus at the expense of other, broader aspects of a decent liberal education. The most significant casualty has probably been school sports, with trips and visits not far behind.

It isn’t directly any government’s fault that too many schools’ senior management teams hide behind a ‘watch my back’ culture of more detailed, time-consuming and off-putting bureaucracy. Too few heads and deputies are willing to support their staff who run after-school sports, or arranging fixtures, putting lengthy forms in the way of keen teachers and taking weeks to pass even the simplest request to run an extra-curricular activity.

One friend - newly qualified and teaching in a state school - commented in despair at the fact that she had to fill in a lengthy risk assessment in order to take her PE class into the park for a class session. The park was opposite the school. Her risk-averse head took two weeks before he decided he could agree with her several page risk assessment, and demanded parental consents and health forms from every parent before the lesson could be conducted. Lesser teachers would have given up long before.

Plenty of heads, too, insist that their sports staff attend tedious after-school inset sessions over running school sports fixtures.  It is little wonder that teachers who might once have been enthusiastic over the idea of running extra-curricular sports give up in the face of the mountains of cowardly, pass the blame bureaucracy put in their paths by senior staff.

I should incidentally declare an interest. I am a rarity among teachers, working as I do for a head who positively encourages extra-curricular activities and ensures a can-do atmosphere in his school, happily taking the ultimate responsibility on himself and giving his staff a high degree of leeway to run things. Why? Quite simply he trusts their professionalism, and he understands that responsible leadership involves supporting rather than hindering them.

But behind this school problem is a government problem, and whatever he says now, Mr Cameron cannot honestly claim to have supported the revitalised sports culture he now wants to see in state schools. His Education Secretary, Michael Gove, cut the funding to the School Sports Partnership (then had to perform a hasty U-turn on it) and devised a Sixth Form funding formula for state schools that removed financing for extra-curricular sports. Only academic A-levels are deemed worthy of government funding in the state sector. As a way of hindering sport in schools, that was pretty good going. And, of course, if you are going to inculcate a blame culture for poor exam results, you can hardly act surprised if your head teachers choose to ignore the poor relation – sports.

The independent sector has a distinguished sporting record because its schools invest considerable sums in their sports provision. They pay for professional coaches, offer generous sports scholarships and possess state of the art facilities.  None of that is available for state schools and sports professionals who can command considerable salaries are not likely to respond to a ‘big society’ call to work free of charge.

If Mr Cameron’s commitment to long-term sports provision for the majority of British students is more than simply the passing enthusiasm of an Olympics fan, then he needs to encourage an ethos of support, accompanied by appropriate funding - first and foremost from the Department for Education.

Otherwise, he might be best advised to avoid the debate altogether.

Giles Marshall is head of politics in a London grammar school. Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

Nik Darlington 7.59am

"Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary." Mark Twain.

Nik Darlington 7.59am

"Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary." Mark Twain.

Lib Dem wins London Marathon!

Nik Darlington 10.32am

The Liberal Democrats don’t win many things these days but one of the party’s backbenchers led the field of MPs in yesterday’s Virgin London Marathon.

Greg Mulholland romped home in 3 hours 42 minutes, thirteen ahead of his closest challenger and fellow marathon veteran, Ed Timpson.

It is probably not a portent for the next general election, but here is the full list of MPs with their times from the official results page:

  • Greg Mulholland (LD, Leeds NW) - 3h 42
  • Ed Timpson (C, Crew & Nantwich) - 3h 55
  • Alun Cairns (C, Vale of Glamorgan) - 4h 03
  • Chris Kelly (C, Dudley S) - 4h 17
  • Jack Lopresti (C, Filton & Bradley Stoke) - 4h 22
  • Graham Evans (C, Weaver Vale) - 4h 46
  • Ed Balls (L, Morley & Outwood) - 5h 31

Making Mr Mulholland’s feat all the more impressive is that he had already run the Paris Marathon last weekend, before setting out on a 600-mile bicycle ride from Yorkshire to London, in aid of the Jane Tomlinson Appeal 10th Anniversary Challenge.

Alun Cairns finished impressively in just over 4 hours having aimed to complete the 26 miles and 325 yards course in something closer to four-and-a-half hours.

And shadow chancellor Ed Balls thanked the crowds for getting him home in his target time of five-and-a-half hours.

As someone who ran their third (and final!) marathon yesterday, I know that it is the slow plodders like Mr Balls who deserve our most respect. I will always maintain that anyone can do a marathon, and while few can do it quickly, it takes a different strength entirely to drag yourself across the finish line after so many hours of running.

Well done to everyone who took part, on what was a perfect morning for running. And thank you to the crowds, who truly did get us all home.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

I’m wishing all MPs the very best for the London Marathon (as long as I’m not overtaken by Ed Balls)

Nik Darlington 8.31am

The weather forecast might be frightful (I prefer my going hard, hot and dry) but I am actually looking forward to lining up alongside more than 30,000 fellow runners this Sunday in the 2012 Virgin London Marathon.

It is, however gruelling, the most wonderful event. Life changing, even. And indescribably so.

Yet this is a political blog, so here’s the politics. On Sunday, I will be sharing the starting line with eight MPs - some, like Alun Cairns, completing their first marathon and others, like Ed Timpson, their umpteenth (for the record, seven in London and nine overall).

The field comprises six Tories (Cairns and Timpson are joined by Graham Evans, Chris Kelly, Philip Lee and Jack Lopresti), one Liberal Democrat (marathon veteran Greg Mulholland) and one Labour MP, none less than the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls.

One shouldn’t really be partisan about these things and comment on the paucity of Lib Dem and Labour MPs taking up the challenge. The Lib Dems, after all, have very few MPs, and some of them are Charles Kennedy and John Hemming.

But are there really no other Labour MPs than Ed Balls able to run a marathon, or even to contemplate running a marathon? (There’s a joke in there about political parties lasting the course: answers on a postcard please.)

I’m actually rather pleased that the pugnacious Mr Balls is the man to put his hand up. As keener readers know, the shadow chancellor and I have form when it comes to on-field rivalry, both turning out occasionally as wicket-keepers for the Lords & Commons cricket team. I desperately hope I don’t see him approaching over my shoulder, but I wish him all the best - the very best, in fact.

They are all running on behalf of worthy causes, including a variety of local hospices (I am raising money this year for St Richard’s Hospice, Worcester).

And I hope as many readers as possible will turn out and cheer on them - and all the other runners - whatever the weather, as people of all shapes and sizes achieve the most Olympian of feats, in this, the most Olympian of years.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Germany has the answer to Britain’s football finance mess

Sara Benwell 7.17am

It’s not often I get to combine two of my biggest passions in the same article, but football and finance are certainly worthy of more than a passing glance at the moment. Sadly, this is because football’s finances are in a mess.

Administration

In recent days, two big British clubs have gone into administration: Glasgow Rangers and Portsmouth, the latter for the second time in two years.  Rangers’ situation is particularly eye-grabbing, considering their size, history and prestige.The club entered administration with £9 million of taxes unpaid, and could face a bill of as much as £50 million pending the outcome of an upcoming court case.

Since 2004, thirteen clubs have gone into administration, such as Leeds United and Crystal Palace. In this instance, clubs are docked league points, but it is questionable whether the points deduction is an effective deterrent. While it is something of a financial professional foul, very few clubs hit liquidation and it is believed that some can opt for administration as a sound business move. It allows them to restructure their finances, to find a new owner and to eliminate existing debt. After which, the clubs can be in a position to borrow more money.

The downside is that once a club goes into administration, the appointed administrator must attempt to pay back any creditors as much money as possible.  This is achieved by selling off the club’s assets, including players, grounds, training pitches, merchandise and anything else that can be sold to raise funds. 

"Fit and proper persons"

In 2004, the Premier League, Football League and the FA introduced the ‘Fit and Proper Persons Test’, which must be passed by any director of a football club, or any owner of more than 30 per cent of a club’s shares.  It was introduced following concerns that anybody, even those who had been convicted of fraud, could take over football clubs.

The test means anybody with an unspent criminal conviction involving dishonesty, or who has run a football club into administration twice, cannot take over a club. Yet the test is could be seen as ineffective because it does not examine what plans potential owners may have for a club or whether they have sufficient funding.

The Fit and Proper Persons Test has been called into question in both the Rangers and the Portsmouth administration cases. Portsmouth’s owner Vladimir Antonov has been arrested on fraud charges (which he denies), eight months after the test cleared him. The Football League claims that Antonov tricked the test by supplying misleading or fraudulent information.

Rangers’ administration has also prompted an investigation by the SFA, because despite Craig Whyte’s being ruled “fit” to buy Rangers last year, it has since emerged that he did not inform the SFA that he was a previously disqualified company director.

Out of control expenditure

Clubs have spent millions on player transfers and most Premier League clubs are weighed down under heavy debts. Premier League clubs’ net debt in 2010 stood at £2.6 billion (Chelsea is currently the highest with £733 million). For more on this, see Nik’s Total Politics article last year about football’s debt problem.

UEFA Fair Play Rules

UEFA has issued its Financial Fair Play Rules, meaning that this financial year all European clubs must at least break even.

This seems already to be prompting some change as many experts put the 70 per cent fall in spending in the January transfer window down to clubs’ attempting to meet the UEFA requirements.  The biggest disclosed transfer this year was Papiss Demba Cisse’s £9 million move to Newcastle United - quite some drop from last years, when Chelsea paid £50 million for Fernando Torres and Liverpool paid £35 million for Andy Caroll. Blunt business, followed by even blunter shooting.

That said, the UEFA ruling could help reduce player fees but it will do nothing about rogue owners, and there is some concern that the ruling may lead to the clubs making the most money going unchallenged. In addition, the true impact will depend on how strictly it is enforced. How likely is UEFA to ban the likes of Barcelona from European football if their balance sheets don’t add up?

Salary Cap

One suggestion that has been made is a salary cap. It operates in rugby union, for instance, but how would this play out for British football? One serious concern is whether clubs could retain the best talent if British leagues went it alone.  A cap would only really work if it were implemented across the whole of Europe, which seems unlikely.

The German way…

One solution might be to operate a system that is closer to the German way of doing things, something Nik has brought up on these pages and elsewhere before. 

Under the German Bundesliga’s rules, no ‘outside’ investor can own more than 49 per cent of a club’s shares and at least 51 per cent must remain be owned club members. The Bundesliga has the lowest ticket prices and the highest average attendance of Europe’s five major leagues. It is also the only major domestic league whose clubs make a collective profit.

Another benefit of the way the German system is run is that the sport is more attractive to sponsors, particularly since games are free to air, and therefore  highly televised meaning that popularity remains high.  The German system remains closer to the fans, and decisions are made which honour both the sport and the spirit of the game.

The Conservative MP Elizabeth Truss had an op-ed in yesterday’s Times calling for us to “rebuild Britain’s economy the German way”. Maybe we should rebuild our ‘beautiful game’ their way too. At the moment at least, it is something to aspire to.

Follow Sara on Twitter @sarabenwell

Maybe the Middle East would get on a bit better if they played rugby

Nik Darlington 9.00am

Tony Blair has spoken exclusively to the Times (£) to mark the tenth anniversary of the 11th September terrorist attacks. As with any discussion the former Prime Minister has about terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan and the like, there is little that is revealing. Mr Blair says himself, “Well, you know, I’ve been over this a thousand times”. We know, Tony.

There are some thoughts about the Arab Spring and ongoing attempts to solve the instabilities of the region in his role as Quartet Envoy. The standout remark concerns Iran, a state Mr Blair warned of during the Chilcot inquiry.

The threat Iran poses to the stability of the region is immense. If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons capability it would destabilise the region very, very badly and they continue to support groups that are engaged with terrorism, and the forces of reaction. And I mean they continue to do that even now - I mean even now in Iraq they’re still interfering where they can and as much as they can… I think regime change in Tehran would immediately make me significantly more optimistic about the whole of the region.

The whole interview is very interesting, pockmarked with those familiar “you knows” (you can almost feel the glottal stops jumping off the page) and affected informality we have come to love and hate. So I encourage you to read it in one form or another.

But only after you have watched the opening match of the Rugby World Cup from Auckland, New Zealand, in which the hosts take on Tonga to kick-start seven weeks of early-morning rugby union.

For this is all that matters today. New Zealand has suffered terrible natural disasters this year, and desperately want to win their second world title on home soil since winning the inaugural tournament in 1987. Twenty-four years of hurt. Don’t mention the ‘C’ word [choke].

It is always a touch ironic when the All Blacks play a neighbouring Pacific island nation like Tonga. It is not quite as bad as it has been in the past but there has been a tradition of poaching the best Polynesian players and putting a black jersey on them (Jonah Lomu, for instance, is Tongan). Yet considering England will go into their first game tomorrow morning against Argentina with young Samoan centre Manu Tuilagi in their starting XV - his older brother, Alesani, is playing for Samoa - we over here can hardly talk.

In fact, rugby union is in effect a global community of players of disputable and changeable nationality, flying flags of convenience to take part in the world’s greatest winter sport on the biggest stage of all. Rugby really can create a ‘world in union’.

In a game so physically demanding, rugby accentuates differences on the pitch like no other, yet it diminishes differences off the pitch like no other too. Rugby possesses an unspoken and profound moral code understood and appreciated the world over.

Where else will you find such an eclectic array of competing nations than in a Rugby World Cup? England, Australia, France…those are the sort of names you expect to see in almost any international sporting tournament. Then Fiji, Namibia, Georgia, Romania, Canada, Japan, the United States, Russia, Tonga, Samoa…an exotic menagerie of amateurs, minnows and superpowers, perhaps, but levelled eye-to-eye on the rugby pitch. In what other context could Samoa be considered superior to the United States?

I began by talking about Tony Blair, terrorism and the Middle East, and thank you for your patience, because I’ll now make my main point. The Middle East doesn’t play rugby. It cannot partake in this magnificent exhibition of sport and honour. There are nations who have fought each other in wars as recently as thirty years ago, such as England and Argentina, or thirty months ago, such as Russia and Georgia.

Dubai has a popular Rugby Sevens tournament, and recently London Wasps and Harlequins played a one-off Premiership match in Abu Dhabi. But the Middle East is generally unexposed to rugby union. It might be hot out there but trust me, I’ve played rugby in Tonga, and it is hot there too.

I just think if they played rugby, they’d all get along a little bit better.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

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We need ‘Street Leaders’ to be role models for youngsters in troubled communities

Paul Marsden 11.15am

In part two of the special policy series, Paul Marsden says we need to provide activities for those youngsters failed by the education system.

Children need to grow up in a loving environment, enjoying life and having fun but it is just as important that they understand the boundaries and rules of acceptable behaviour. Children need role models. If none can be found at home, they will find them outside, amongst their peers.

There is little point in building shiny new youth clubs or providing brand new computer suites if there are not enough enthusiastic, talented, youth leaders to coach, mentor and guide young people.

Likewise, the bricks and mortar of a youth centre or similar facility are useless without activities to fill them.

Useful activities should provide youngsters with new skills to support them in life. Activities should also help to improve the local community. Rather than buying a pool table, useful community projects could involve getting young people to community website with videos on people and events in the community. They will learn IT skills and appreciate the value of their local community. The younger that children start activities like this, the better the prospect of them adopting a positive outlook, attitude and civic pride in later life.

Throw down the gauntlet and choose a project on young people’s doorsetps, such as a boarded up shop and encourage them to paint a mural on the shuttering. Offer them recognition by filming their accomplishment for local TV news. Have another group of youngsters use the film equipment and do it themselves so that they can learn film-making skills - producing, editing, uploading to YouTube and reviewing each other’s work.

Leadership is absolutely vital to fostering such an environment and a feeling of belonging in positive ‘circles’. Replace gangs with these circles.

Encourage competitive team sports in these circles too - something that has fallen by the wayside in our schools - such as football, cricket, baseball and basketball.

Instil these circles of youngsters with values such as fairness, respect, tolerance and responsibility. Replace aggressive gang competition with healthy sporting competition.

This is not an easy task but we have to find a way of substituting present after-school activities of street gangs and unproductive behaviour with better options. And I repeat, leadership is vital. The key is to find local leaders who understand their areas, have gained respect from people in those areas, and who have the potential to discover solutions to the area’s problems.

These ‘street leaders’ can be people from all walks of life. They would be an integral part of Renovation Zones, an idea introduced on these pages yesterday.

Street leaders are not gang leaders. They are fundamentally honest people who respect society’s rules. However, no one, irrespective of past mistakes, should be discouraged from becoming a street leader in a Renovation Zone as long as they fulfil those requirements and are the right person for the role.

Street leaders would be offered a small but useful budget for local projects and outcomes would be measured in simple terms such as fewer crimes - especially youth crime.

They will need to receive some coaching themselves and be provided with encouragement and motivation. Mentors of street leaders might include retired police officers, armed forces personnel, youth workers, business people and teachers.

There must not be a ‘formula solution’. Local ideas should be tried and tested. What works in one street might not work in another. Street leaders’ views should be respected and if ideas don’t work there must be encouragement, not blame.

Troubled communities need honest leaders as role models. The young people of those troubled communities need them more than anyone.

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Will we blow the final whistle on irresponsible financing of sport?

Nik Darlington 9.12am

I got a shelf life of ten years, tops. My next contract’s gotta bring me the dollars that’ll last me and mine a long time. Shit, I’m out of this sport in five years. What’s my family gonna live on? Huh?

- Rod Tidwell, Jerry Maguire (1996)

We can ignore it, remain locked in romantic nostalgia for a more Corinthian age and be disappointed; or we can accept it for what it is and love it for what it gives.

Sport is not just a game. It can inspire hope from despair, as we have seen attempts at in Sri Lanka in recent years. It can make a lucky cadre of talented individuals very, very wealthy indeed (though even that is as old as sport itself - do you think W.G. Grace made his lucre as a physician?). It offers a comfortable, if short-lived, career for a much larger number of talented individuals. Rod Tidwell is right. What are you going to live on when your shelf life is up? You need to make money, fast.

It was the offer of £175,000 per week from big-spenders Manchester City that prompted Samir Nasri to leave a club, Arsenal, where he was successful and popular, and to turn down a club as big and successful as Manchester United.

And what feeds high wages, high transfers and high expectations? High finance. At the top, sport, and football especially, is becoming an offshoot of the financial markets.

Manchester United’s mooted stock market listing in Singapore is the latest such development. The plan is to raise $1 billion in a flotation, in order to stabilise the notoriously over-leveraged club. There were thoughts that the English champions would try an IPO in Hong Kong, but the canny Cantonese don’t allow listings from companies making a loss.

Football must sort out its debt problem. That is the view of a recent report into football governance by a committee of MPs. It is also the view of UEFA, whose Financial Fair Play regulations stipulate that European clubs must break even by 2012-13. There are signs that some clubs are tightening their belts, although few are confident that UEFA’s regulations can be met, let alone enforced.

Further mimicking the slippery world of finance, Manchester City are being investigated by UEFA for allegedly circumventing the Fair Play rules by over-valuing a £400 million sponsorship deal with Etihad, the state airline of Abu Dhabi, whose ruler is related to Sheikh Mansour, City’s owner.

One would have thought that responsible restraint in this age of austerity would be praised, but no, in football, emotions rule reason. The Times ran a leading article (£) earlier this week about Arsene Wenger, the under-fire manager of Arsenal. It is worth quoting at length:

Arsene Wenger, entering his sixteenth season as manager, has won more trophies for Arsenal than any previous boss… The flair of his footballers is admired around the world. By discovering young talent he has managed to keep Arsenal in the top four of the Premier League without running up a transfer bill the size of Greece’s sovereign debt. And all this while shepherding the club into a new stadium.

And Wenger’s reward? To be booed and pilloried by Arsenal supporters for not opening his wallet more profligately…and to find himself the target of media nutters suggesting that his future at Arsenal may be precarious.

…Wenger’s would be an odd strategy to mock at any time, let alone when his brand of living-within-your-means book-keeping is an example to all governments striving to cut spending without undermining the competitiveness of their economies.

David Dein, former vice-chairman of Arsenal and the man who brought Wenger to the club in 1996, has said today that fans must back him or risk losing him. And so they should. Wenger’s departure under these circumstances, having just had to sell two star players (Nasri and the club captain, Cesc Fabregas), would be a ridiculous message that sustainable management is unappreciated.

It is encouraging that Tony Fernandes, owner of AirAsia and the majority shareholder at newly promoted Queen’s Park Rangers, has said that he will not try to imitate the lavish injections of cash seen at the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea.

"I don’t believe you can run any venture - be it sport or a business - that isn’t profitable. I’m not saying it’s going to be profitable tomorrow, but that would be the ambition."

"I think football is a fantastic business if it’s run well. QPR is in a fantastic location and has huge potential to develop into something special."

It is a lofty ambition (excuse the pun), but three cheers to that, and let’s hope it lasts.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

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