My Lords, this is a timely debate. By now, the House will be under no illusion that feeling is running high in the sporting world on the issue of the run-down of money for school sport in this country. Last Wednesday, in the other place, it was clear from the Opposition Benches and from some Members from the coalition Benches that there are grave doubts about the wisdom of these sad proposals of the Government. Clearly, the Secretary of State has little or no knowledge of the importance of sport. I hope that he and this Government will reflect on the damage that they will cause if they go ahead with these ill thought through, unfair and disruptive measures. As my honourable friend in another place, Andy Burnham, so eloquently pointed out, Mr Gove has never cared much for sport. As a schoolboy, his school report suggested that he was not one for the playing fields. It now appears that, in government, he plans to impose his feelings on the children of today.
Let me take obesity rates as a starting point. The Government's own Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, has expressed his grave doubts over obesity, particularly in young people. As I stated in a previous debate, that is a concern that I undoubtedly share. In fact, the National Health Service information centre report on obesity published last year states that 30 per cent of girls between the ages of two and 15 and 31 per cent of boys of the same age are classed as overweight. Furthermore, 16 per cent of the girls and 17 per cent of the boys are obese. Such worrying figures directly cost the NHS some £500 million per year, with a further £2 billion in costs to the wider economy. The worst projection of recent trends suggests that 75 per cent of the population will be suffering from the ill effects of excess weight within the next 15 years. Surely if we are serious about tackling these crippling statistics, one of the key initiatives must be school sport, yet by removing opportunities for young people to partake in regular sport, these problems will only worsen rather than improve. Sport offers young people a focus and a discipline to help them develop as individuals within communities.
The proposed Government measures run counter to the pledge that we would have a legacy following the 2012 London Olympic Games. It is clear that school sport partnerships must play a central role in such an aspiration. After all, as the noble Lord, Lord Coe, said at the time that we won the bid for the Games at Singapore,
"Give London the Games and we will inspire millions of young people to choose sport".
In view of the Government's approach to sporting provision, I doubt that he could make that promise today.
Since the announcement that the Government are to slash the budget for school sport partnerships from £162 million to £10 million, the response from head teachers, schoolchildren and some of the country's leading sports stars has been little short of overwhelming in its condemnation. In a letter to the Prime Minister, 80 of the country's top athletes, including Tessa Sanderson, Denise Lewis and James DeGale, expressed their support for SSPs. However, it is not only our elite athletes who are protesting. I would like to refer to a young lady who has contacted me after discovering that the SSP in her area will no longer be funded. Her name is Debbie Foote. She is 17 years of age and chair of the national young ambassador steering group, which is a group of young people who aim to inspire their peers to choose sport and take up a healthy, active lifestyle through the legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games. I quote from a message that she sent to me:
"Through the support of my SSP, I have been able to fulfill my journey with fantastic opportunities and experiences, such as organising world record skipping and hooping events and delivering presentations and workshops to various sporting bodies. I have developed skills such as confidence, time management, leadership, teamwork, communication and responsibility that have provided me with clear aims and a pathway; they have set me up for the rest of my life. I fully believe that these skills have supported my academic development (achieving 11A Stars at G.C.S.E. and 4 A grades at AS level)".
Indeed, Debbie goes on to say:
"I don't want other young people to miss out on these experiences and miss out on the chance to fulfill their potential. I believe the SSPs to be so much more than just sport; they enable the development of young people, encouraging them to see beyond themselves to think about the welfare of their peers and inspire them in turn to be the best they can be. This surely only provides hope for the 'Big Society' the coalition government wishes to create".
If the big society is to mean anything at all, surely it must encompass the aims of the school sport partnerships.
With the support of the Youth Sport Trust, the school sport partnerships have delivered on every participation target set for young people. Not only that, the SSPs provide a model that is highly regarded across the world. As was pointed out in the debate in the other place, the Australian sports commissioner has asked how this country could possibly dismantle a "world-leading" school sports system. At the same time, the chief executive of the Canadian Olympic Committee has personally written to the Secretary of State to ask how we can take such steps backwards so close to a home Olympics. It should also be pointed out that New Zealand has expressed its support and is, indeed, eager to learn from our programme. The respect of the programme from other countries has been earned, due to the positive changes in school sport.
When referring to youth sport in this country and, indeed, worldwide, both Houses would agree that the leading voice on the issue over the years has been the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Loughborough. No doubt she will speak for herself in this debate but I wish to place on record my appreciation, which I know is shared by thousands of sportsmen and women, for her tireless support for sport in this country, in particular her devotion to school and youth sport.
I also want to bring to the attention of the House the value of school sport partnerships, not only within schools but across the wider community. The impact can be seen from the number of children taking part, which has risen dramatically. From 2006 to 2009, a further 600,000 young people have taken part in extra-curricular activities. All of that has been further helped by the increased support of the national governing bodies countrywide. Even the LTA is, at long last, on board and is now making a substantial investment in tennis in schools by providing free equipment and by training teachers in more than 8,000 state schools since the start of 2009.
An example of the excellent work being done comes from the Lancaster area, where James McNally is a tennis coach. Two years ago, he quit his office job and began coaching full time. Since then, he has received the full support of his SSP and provides hundreds of local children with the opportunity to play tennis. It is his legitimate fear that, because of the proposed budget cuts in schools, he will no longer be able to work and those hundreds of children will lose their opportunity to play tennis.
Another young lady, Laura Cummings, who is the competitions manager for Tameside schools sports partnership, informs me that 10 years ago, while attending a mainstream school where she was a high academic achiever, she was discouraged by teachers-even her head teacher-from taking PE in order to concentrate on more academic subjects so that she could pursue a career in medicine, science or business. Fortunately, she believed strongly in what sport had to offer the world and she achieved great academic grades at both school and college. She achieved five A* grades at GCSE level and four A grades at A-level before going on to study sports science at Loughborough University. Her story gives a true reflection of the way in which the great majority of teachers view sport, which is a view that will dramatically return if the Secretary of State is left to undo all the hard work that school sport partnerships have achieved.
In answer to the Secretary of State's belief that sport should be at the discretion of head teachers-many of whom, although by no means all, care not a jot about sport and will encourage pure academic achievement alone by dispersing the allocation of funds to non-sporting events-Laura Cummings would testify that Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council has a very enterprising approach to sport. The council is rightly considered to be one of the best in the country for sporting provision. The New Charter Academy schools sports partnership in Tameside should be congratulated on its approach to sport within its boundaries. Laura Cummings informs me that, since 2005, there has been: a 28 per cent increase in the number of pupils accessing high-quality inter-school competition; a 24 per cent increase in the number of pupils accessing high-quality intra-school competition; a 20 per cent increase in the amount of primary curriculum time allocated to PE and sport; a 9 per cent increase in the number of pupils participating in community clubs; an 8 per cent increase in the number of pupils actively engaged in leadership opportunities; and more than 750 teachers and school support staff accessing accredited PE training courses.
The Secretary of State's statement that school sport partnerships have not been successful in increasing the number of competitive opportunities for pupils is a complete nonsense. The introduction of SSPs in Tameside has proved that. It has 9,732 pupils with inter-school competition and 4,906 pupils with intra-school competition. All this was achieved since the new charter for school sport partnership was set up. If this represents the opportunities from a single partnership, imagine how great the impact has been through 450 school sport partnerships. For instance, in Greater Manchester alone last year, more than 40,000 competitive opportunities were provided by competition managers and the school sport partnerships network in priority national governing body sports.
The Government have shown that they do not understand, or perhaps even care, about the importance of sport and its enormous value and fun. Sport has been one of the defining features of my life. It has helped me to reach this place. It has shaped my life in a way that I could never have imagined when I laced up my first pair of football boots or first stepped into the boxing ring. With a single stroke of a pen, the Government have set out to deprive future generations of that same chance. The Prime Minister has requested the Secretary of State to rethink; if he does not rethink, he should be moved on.