17 Jan 2011

Sports study centre cuts could hit key skills

Funding for Playing for Success, an initiative aimed at improving children’s literacy, numeracy and ICT grades through sport, will end this year. Channel 4 News investigates the potential impact.

Set up in 1997-98, over its 13 years Playing for Success (PfS) has helped over a million children to improve on their numeracy, literacy and ICT skills, engaging them by learning through sport. In fact 19 different sports are core to the running of PfS.

The previous Government spent over £24m to invest in up to 162 PfS centres which are run by experienced fully qualified teachers at major sports clubs like Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and West Ham United, and link up with schools and local education authorities (LEAs). It costs each centre around £105,000 per year to run, with £80,000 from central Government and £25,000 from LEAs and sports clubs.

But now the Coalition is cutting state funding for the initiative, which costs the Government £13.7m a year for all 162 centres, despite Education Secretary Michael Gove previously saying in 1998 during a visit to the Buckmore Park Kart Circuit centre that PfS was just the kind of initiative the Tories would back.

Department for Education Statement

A spokeswoman at the Department for Education told Channel 4 News: "Playing for Success is a fantastic initiative and we want the private sector much more engaged with services for young people so this is a great model for future programmes.

"We are working closely with Rex Hall Associates [the firm responsible for running PfS under the Government contract] to ensure PfS Centres are sustainable in the longer term. One option might include charging for the services they offer. Schools will have the freedom to use their de-ringfenced budgets to make the most of these centres which are still well placed to support schools with innovative approaches to improving literacy, numeracy and ICT."

The Department for Education spokesperson added: "The Pupil Premium is being given directly to schools who will use it to target pupils most in need of additional support.

"To achieve reductions in the Department's expenditure and contribute to the deficit reduction we have had to make some difficult choices on centrally funded programmes but we continue to work with RHA to ensure PfS is sustainable in the longer term."

The Department was unable to tell Channel 4 News how it was helping RHA, the firm responsible for running PfS, but confirmed that it is “working closely” with the company to “ensure sustainability”.

The Department also suggested that schools, which are due to receive directly the £2.4bn Pupil Premium “to target pupils most in need of additional support” can use their funding “to make the most of these centres which are still well placed to support schools with innovative approaches to improving literacy, numeracy and ICT.”

The problem is the funding for PfS ends in March. The Pupil Premium does not begin to be distributed until April. Some schools say they will not have had enough time to see how much funds they have at their disposal or decide how best to use that money.

‘We don’t know how much funding we’re going to get’

Indeed, when Channel 4 News went to the Batley Bulldogs Rugby League PfS centre in Kirklees, West Yorkshire, Deputy Head of Cawley Lane Primary School Stuart Harris told us: “At the moment we really don’t know how much funding we’re going to get so it’s impossible to say but it’s certainly a possibility that we won’t be able to pay for this.”

“To achieve reductions in the Department’s expenditure and contribute to the deficit reduction we have had to make some difficult choices on centrally funded programmes but we continue to work with RHA to ensure PfS is sustainable in the longer term.” Department for Education spokesperson

RHA told Channel 4 News the knock-on effect means that many of the PfS centres may have closed by the start of April, indeed two have already shut down in Leicester and Bournemouth, PfS teachers may have been made redundant and the strong partnerships struck with the big sports clubs and local businesses may be gone – something that would be desperately difficult to get back.

RHA expects some 80 more PfS centres to close as early as the end of March, and Channel 4 News has learnt that in several PfS centres, teachers have already been served with redundancy.

Barclays Premier League and Playing for Success tie-up (Reuters)

Proven impact

The PfS staff cannot understand why the Department for Education has decided to stop the funding of the initiative. They understood and accepted that there would be some sort of cut as part of last year’s Spending Review, but were shocked back in July last year when it emerged the whole funding was being taken away, in effect a “cliff-edge cut”, as one RHA official told Channel 4 News.

Steve Smith, Lead Associate for innovation and development at RHA, told Channel 4 News it would only take an extra £4m to keep the majority of PfS centres afloat this year, in order to secure private funding for a sustainable future, and he is dumbfounded the Coalition does not appear to see how PfS fits into the ideology of David Cameron’s “Big Society”.

There’s some anger there, despair mainly. Steve Smith, Lead Associate for PfS company, RHA

He said: “There’s some anger there, despair mainly because the situation is that these centres are so well placed to meet everything the Government’s talking about – the Big Society, the new white paper. All of their aims we can deliver on through the centres and they’ve got a track record on that for the last 12 years.”

The Barclays Premier League and other sporting authorities have worked in partnership with PfS over the last decade.

And in Kirklees, five sports clubs who would usually be rivals have come together to work with local schools, the council and volunteers in order to help improve and enhance the education of the community’s underachieving children.

The PfS team say they have grasped David Cameron’s ideology of the entrepreneur by securing community partnerships with local authorities, businesses, universities, schools and sports clubs around England, but without the state funding, this community project will not be able to survive in its current form.

Furthermore, PfS has a proven track record of engaging with the most difficult to reach, vulnerable and at-risk groups of pupils and their families. Hundreds of thousands of these disadvantaged students, many from poor backgrounds, have benefited from the PfS scheme.

Playing for Success: how it works

As a scheme which helps youngsters learn through sport faces funding cuts, Channel 4 News looks at how it works and the benefits it has had so far.

The 162 Playing for Success (PfS) centres are based at sporting stadia around the country. They offer a vibrant and unique learning environment for students, using the sporting stars and facilities around them to engage underachieving Key Stage Two and Three children who are struggling at school to attain Government targets on literacy, numeracy and ICT.

PfS has gained recognition for the quality of its practice through Quality in Study Support (QiSS).

The courses run over 10 weeks at a time, with each pupil receiving around 20 hours of extra study support. PfS says its centres help around 50,000 children a year, who sign up voluntarily to the programme, and another 50,000 or so students who come for daytime sessions via their schools.

Read more: Playing for Success - how it works

Channel 4 News can reveal that in its soon to be published evaluation into the impact of PfS on students’ attainment targets, RHA statistics show that children from underachieving categories at risk of not making progress – some 80 per cent who have attended this scheme have made measurable progress in their reading, writing and maths from often a low baseline.

Indeed in a lot of cases, low prior attainment students have made exceptional progress in one or more of these areas.

The apparent success of PfS has led to other EU countries adopting the PfS model via RHA and building their own centres, just as the Coalition Government is cutting its funding in the very country the idea was conceived in.

These nations include the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain. Japan and Australia are also adopting the PfS template, while Barack Obama’s Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Education Anthony Miller has also been in touch to discuss proposals to import PfS to America.