19 Jul 2013

Are schools spending less time on sport?

What’s the truth behind the claims that schools are spending less, not more, time on sport?

And whose approach to funding school sport – Labour’s old school sports partnerships or the government’s new school sports premium – works best?

In May, the Smith Institute, an “independent” left-leaning think tank, published some thought-provoking research.

Indeed, on the face of it, the numbers are troubling.

Thirty six per cent of primary school teachers they surveyed reported a worsening of sport in their school under the new system (48 per cent said it had stayed the same and 16 per cent said it had improved).

Thirty seven per cent of secondary school teachers surveyed reported a worsening of sport in their school under the new system, 55 per cent said it had stayed the same and 8 per cent it had improved.

But, of course, there’s that old saying about lies and statistics.

So what about the Smith Institute methodology?

The data was taken from 1,019 teachers and school sports staff. That’s a reasonably large number. And the data shows a clear trend: sport provision in school has worsened.

But the Smith Institute contacted nearer 20,000 teachers. Why did only 1,019 reply? There are many possible reasons. People tend not to reply to a survey if they’re not that exercised about the content. So maybe only the really angry ones responded. But then again, maybe the other 19,000 were too busy and bogged down with rescuing failing schools (or, indeed, building outstanding ones) to get around to replying. It’s impossible to infer anything concrete.

So we should compare the figures to other research, which is where we run into more problems.

Because there is no accurate data for sport in school.

The closest thing to the Smith Institute report is the government’s own data. The DCMS publishes something called Taking Part.

But they have only published data up to September 2012 – thus including both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. But nothing later. Nothing against which to measure whether the promises of “inspiring a generation” are materialising.

Taking Part suggests the proportion of 5-10-year-olds doing sport outside school has remained steady for the last few years. Likewise there has been no significant change to the proportion of 11-15-year-olds doing sport either in or outside school.

But as with the Smith Institute report, there are holes in the methodology. The number of respondents is larger – but not so large as to render it statistically more reliable. They surveyed a total of 1,755 children, comprising 1,014 5-10-year-olds and 741 11-15-year olds. But with the best will in the world, children are unreliable witnesses.

And they measure something slightly different. Not the entirely qualitative question the Smith report asked – whether there was a “worsening” of school sport – but whether they had played sport in the last four weeks. Sport, just once a month. Hardly, in itself, a measure of athletic dedication.

Which leads us on to the most reliable research of the lot. Sport England publishes annual stats called Active People that tracks participation in individual sports. It measures how many people play a given sport for at least half an hour a week.

And it surveys a huge number of adults, which gives a view across 163,000 people.

Its most recent conclusions appear to concur with the Smith Institute survey. Over the long term, sports participation is up by 1.3m since the 2005 when the Olympics were awarded to London. But in the last 12 months, participation has dropped – by 200,000.

Even Active People is not without its shortcomings, however. It only surveys over-16s. It is impossible to extrapolate the findings to schoolchildren.

Which is where politics comes in. Sport, whether we like it or not, is always political. Lord Coe says his one regret, a year on from the Games, is that school sport became bogged down in ideological and party disputes.

The argument turns over whether the previous – Labour – government schools sport policy was more effective than the current coalition model.

But this in itself stems from what you believe the true picture to be.

Are schools spending more time – or less – on sport, than they were before?

If the Smith Institute data is accurate, it would appear this is an argument the government is losing.

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