Sport: Health and Well-being of Children and Young People — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:59 pm on 9th December 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 12:59 pm, 9th December 2010

My Lords, first, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Pendry for initiating this debate. As we have heard, he has a notable record as a tireless campaigner for many years on sports issues, and he has today again illustrated how passionately he is committed to that cause.

There are good reasons why this issue is topical today. For me, it is not least because it raises important questions about joined-up government. In fairness, I acknowledge that the previous Government came rather late to that concept, but latterly, their track record on co-ordinating action to improve child health was good. We now appear to have gone backwards. Joined-up thinking, co-ordination and partnership are out. Autonomy, independence and individualism are in. That has far-reaching implications for the universal provision of sport and exercise in schools, which underpinned the previous Government's success in this area.

That, of course, brings us to Michael Gove's announcement. Like some of my noble friends, I am interested to know how much liaison there was with his ministerial colleagues in other departments in advance of his decision to downgrade the compulsory features of sports facilities in schools. Did he, for example, consult the Minister for Sport, who described the Youth Sport Trust in 2005 as "a fantastic organisation", and who argued earlier this year that it would be wrong to dismantle 13 years of hard work carried out by the school sport partnerships? Did he consult the Minister for Public Health, whose recent White Paper identified that,

"children need access to high quality physical education", backed by a requirement to provide PE in all maintained schools?

Did he consult the Secretary of State for Health, who is faced with growing statistics of childhood obesity, with the UK now having the highest levels in Europe, and with the associated epidemic of childhood diabetes and cardiovascular disease? Did he consult the Prime Minister, who personally announced that in future, the nation's whole progress will be measured by happiness and well-being standards as well as economic indices? Where was the joined-up government thinking on the health and well-being of children, and how is it being rolled out into specific departmental action plans?

Like my noble friend Lord Pendry, I read the debate on school sports held in the other place last week. I was amused by my right honourable friend Andy Burnham's suggestion that Michael Gove's attack on the current sports regime might be some kind of revenge for some unpleasant memories of his sporting experience at school. I am sure that that is not the case, but it raises the question of what his motives really are. Michael Gove's views on the curriculum are well known. He wants to see children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England and the great works of literature, but he also shares the previous Government's ambition to drive up academic standards.

If he had taken a more holistic view of children's education, he would know that exercise has been shown to improve children's exam results and their concentration in lessons. A study in the journal Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology earlier this year reported that children who take vigorous exercise every day boost their mental age by an average of 10 months. In addition, a report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in 2009 found that physical activity has a motivational impact on children,

"increasing their self-esteem and general wellbeing", and helping them,

"to develop essential social skills such as concentration, self discipline, cooperation and an awareness of the need to think of things and people other than themselves".

Even in Michael Gove's new favourite country, Finland, which has improved academic performance impressively, regular breaks for exercise and a nutritious, free school meal are interspersed with intensive teaching on a daily, universal basis. So even if we shared his narrow objective of raising academic achievement, the evidence clearly shows that regular daily exercise is part of the solution.

I understand that Michael Gove's educational conservatism extends to the type of sport that is played in school. Apparently, there is not enough Rugby Union, netball, hockey and gymnastics. I do not know about other noble Lords, but I do not have one good memory of my experience on the hockey field of Whitchurch High School. In fact, it came close to putting me off sport for life Surely, the first step in developing a good sport policy is to find sports which people can enjoy. That was the point captured by the NICE guidelines, which the Library kindly supplied for this debate. They identified the need to ensure that physical activity is healthy, fun and enjoyable and tailored to the child's development and physical ability. That is precisely what the school sport partnerships were achieving. They expanded the choice of sports available and made them enjoyable and accessible, with the result that, between 2002 and 2010, the proportion of young people doing at least two or more hours of sport per week rose from 25 per cent to 90 per cent.

We all want children to do well at school and be happy and motivated, but we cannot ignore our wider responsibility to head off the growing threat to children's well-being which comes through the rise in obesity. In the UK, about 27 per cent of children are now overweight. That is partly the result of poor diet, but it is also the result of lack of exercise. It is not enough to say that parents should take responsibility for that, as they themselves are often the problem. The strongest predictor of being obese is having an obese parent of the same sex. A report by the University of Glasgow found that parents wildly overestimated the amount of exercise that their children were undertaking. If we are serious about protecting young people from the ill-health that arises from obesity, we need more opportunities for sport and exercise in schools and after-school clubs, not fewer. We need a programme that appeals to all, not just the elite sportsmen, and we need guarantees that every child in this country will have access to a minimum national provision.

Finally, we need a robust system to measure whether we are being successful in raising the standards of child health. It is not much to ask, and I hope that the Minister can reassure me that, on reflection, it is the model that the Government intend to adopt.