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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:16 pm on 9th December 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour 1:16 pm, 9th December 2010

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, has secured this debate. We are, I know, all grateful to him for his persistence in pursuing issues of sport and well-being. I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, who has done so much for youth sport and whom I thank for her wise words today. I, too, read last week's debate in another place on sport, and I was amazed at the Government's perception of what sport is about, which almost all noble Lords have referred to. For me, sport means an enjoyment of physical exercise and encouraging young people-and older people, too-to do some form of physical activity. Many examples have been given today.

I am not against competitive sport. On the contrary, I used to love participating in it. I have good memories of hockey and lots of other games. I love watching competitive sport, but competing is not the whole story. The letter written by the noble Baroness to Michael Gove has been quoted today. She emphasised opportunities to engage in activity that people can pursue throughout their lifetime. I want to go beyond the arguments about sport and physical health and to look at how sport can benefit general well-being throughout life, which has been referred to by other noble Lords.

An American professor at Harvard, Dr John Ratey, has explored the connection between the brain's performance and exercise. He maintains that even moderate exercise will enhance memory, combat stress and affect hormonal function. For example, after a fitness programme was introduced in an Illinois school district, test scores soared and the district came the world's first in science and sixth in mathematics. Exercise counteracts stress by increasing blood flow to the brain and creating protective neurochemicals. Exercise raises endorphin levels, is more effective than anti-depressants and can ward off memory loss. Research indicates that women who exercise decrease their chances of dementia by 50 per cent. Exercise can combat addiction and attention deficit disorder. Dr Ratey has shown that exercise is particularly important for women in each stage of the life cycle because it tones down the negative consequences of hormonal changes. Clearly, the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, has benefited from that, and my noble friend Lady Billingham may have done so, too. I do not know how much encouraging physical activity has saved the NHS, but the saving must be worth millions.

Such research-and there is plenty-shows that one of the fundamental experiences that we should be giving to children is exercise, not so that they can think about how much good it is doing them but so that they can enjoy it. The research to which I referred is talking not about competitive sport but about exercise. In its latest report card on child well-being in rich nations, UNICEF-in which I must declare an interest as a trustee-does not talk about competitive sport as affecting well-being; it, too, talks about exercise. The Central Council for Physical Recreation has recently changed its name to the Sport and Recreation Alliance to reflect a better idea of what it does. One of its divisions is movement, dance and outdoor pursuits. Exercise such as dance, yoga, pilates, walking, cycling, swimming and fishing can start in childhood and still benefit people well into old age. Exercise can benefit those who have an illness or a disability if they are given the opportunity to take part in appropriate forums. It is essential to get children moving and not just competing.

Chance to shine is an example of an imaginative and inclusive approach to sport for young people and is supported by the English Cricket Board. The campaign involves encouraging participation in cricket in inner-city schools where there is often limited access to playing fields. It is hugely popular with pupils and staff. More than 4,000 schools are involved already and the millionth child participated this summer. It involves boys and girls of all abilities. A case study from that initiative illustrates some of my earlier points about the effect of sport on well-being. A boy, Paul, aged 11, had changed primary school 10 times and had been expelled from the last two schools that he attended. Both his parents were in prison and several foster placements had been tried without success. Paul had episodes of violent and verbally abusive behaviour, but through chance to shine he discovered a talent for sport. He got in the school team and his behaviour improved dramatically. His school attendance is now 100 per cent. That is one of many success stories. Of course, it is not simply playing cricket that has done this for Paul, but cricket was the beginning. He gained one-to-one support, learnt to be in a team, learnt self control and gained confidence and aspirations. The Labour Government matched 50 per cent of the expenditure of the chance to shine campaign. What will be the future funding for this excellent initiative? We can all be proud of the England team's fine performance in the recent test match-I hope that no Australians are present today-and of the building blocks of this participation in cricket.

The issue of girls in sport was also mentioned earlier. We certainly need to keep working on encouraging girls to take up sport.

I hope that the Minister will sympathise with the concerns that I expressed earlier. Sport is important as an enjoyable activity. To enjoy it, a wide offering of activity is needed not just competitive games. As a spin-off to enjoyment, sport has beneficial physical, emotional and intellectual impacts. All those are more likely to be effective if participation in sport is started early and built into growing up. I hope that the Minister will give some reassurances about sport funding, not just for chance to shine but for a wide variety of sport.