The idea of an Olympic legacy is high on the political agenda, with politicians, athletes and commentators talking of the need to capitalise on the huge success of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Martin Hodgson looks at the plans to encourage young people to emulate this summer’s heroes and get more involved in sport.

High hopes

The London bid for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games included a pledge at its heart to use the events to inspire two million people to take up sport and physical activity. The Olympic slogan "inspire a generation" underlined this ambition and the resulting Games were phenomenally successful, with Team GB winning a raft of medals in both competitions and exciting the nation.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the Games had “lifted the whole country” and has called for “a big cultural change” towards sport in schools if Britain is to capitalise on the success. He has appointed Lord Coe, the Chair of the original bid and of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, to be the UK's Olympic legacy ambassador. His role includes advising the Government on the best ways to secure long-term benefits for the UK. Mr Cameron said he would also be tasked with ensuring that efforts to boost sporting, volunteering and regeneration effects were kept on track.

However, the Games have also sparked some debate about exactly how the legacy will be supported and financed, the roles of both state-funded and independent schools, and school playing fields.

So what is the legacy of the Games and what plans are in place for schools to tap into the success for their own sporting programmes?

Paralympic success

The Paralympic Games have proved truly inspiring to a huge audience and have provided a real boost for disability sport in the UK. More tickets were sold for the London Paralympics than for any equivalent event.

Alison Oliver, Director of Sport at the Youth Sport Trust, believes that this success presents an opportunity to highlight the importance of disability sport in schools, stating: “What I hope the Games will do is shine a light on the importance of getting the delivery of sport right for young disabled people. At present PE is often delivered very well in special schools but many teachers in mainstream state schools don't have the confidence and expertise to teach high-quality PE to young disabled people.

“Teachers need greater support in understanding how to deliver sport that is inclusive to all young people. We believe schools should get greater guidance and training in how they can adapt sports to make them inclusive.”

Government blueprint

The Government’s plans for Olympic legacy are set out in Beyond 2012 — The London 2012 Legacy Story. They have been described as “a blueprint for future Games hosts” and refer to future use of the various Olympic sites, as well as to additional support for sports clubs and associations themselves. They also include plans to:

  • provide £1 billion over five years for youth sport

  • upgrade 1000 local sports venues

  • develop 6000 links between sports clubs and schools so that every secondary school will have the chance of a link with a proper sports club (there are already 5000 links in place and the Government intends to expand this to cover an increasing number of primary schools).

A key partner in the delivery of any legacy is the Youth Sport Trust (YST), which says it is important that schools engage everyone, eg by involving young people themselves in the selection and planning of sport and activities. It also believes that schools need to broaden the range of lunchtime and after-hours clubs to increase opportunities for young people to take part, and be more inclusive of young people with disabilities.

The YST wants teachers and coaches on the ground to be ready to support young people who show an interest in sport at primary and secondary level. It is also asking parents to encourage their children to lead active lifestyles and to get them involved in sport. Parents also need to be encouraged into volunteering roles in sports clubs and school sports activity.

In addition, the Government has announced that funding for Britain's elite Olympic sports will be extended until the Rio Olympics in 2016, and that UK Sport — the body that distributes money to Olympic and Paralympic sports — will receive £125 million per year.

School Games

Playing perhaps the major part in any future legacy will be an annual Olympic-style sports competition called the School Games delivered by the YST. Backed by Sport England Lottery funding, the School Games aim to improve the quality and quantity of competitive sport in schools and engage all young people in sport, whatever their ability. Over 14,000 schools in England are signed up so far.

The School Games have a tiered structure, designed to get young people of all abilities competing at intra-school, inter-school, local, regional and national events, including a School Games finals.

The first Games were held in May this year at a range of venues, including the Olympic Park, and featured more than 1600 young competitors. Competition took place in many sports, including athletics, badminton, fencing, gymnastics, hockey, judo, road cycling, rugby 7s, table tennis, volleyball and wheelchair basketball. Up to 35,000 tickets for spectators were allocated for the finals, with more than 400 school groups from across the country travelling to London to watch.

The School Games are organised and supported by a network of roles and organisations across the different levels of competition. Two specific posts that work in and between schools to help them run the Games are:

  • School Games Organisers: funded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Health to drive, develop and deliver the School Games across groups of schools

  • Teacher Release: as part of its legacy planning, the Government has made funding available to all maintained secondary schools and academies to release from timetable a PE teacher from every secondary school in England for one day a week in the school years 2011/12 and 2012/13. These teachers will provide specialist PE and sport training in local primary schools and within their own schools, to embed good practice and to provide more competitive sport for all pupils, including the School Games.

The School Games replaces the network of School Sport Partnerships which the Government decided was not affordable. While the network helped schools to increase participation rates in some areas, the Government concluded that it was not the best way to encourage competitive sport.

It’s not the taking part than counts…

The Prime Minister believes that the Government has a part to play in using the inspiration of the Olympics to foster a culture of more competitive sports in schools. He has stated that he wants a whole-school sporting ethos that gives pupils the skills to enjoy and take part in sport inside and outside of school, including local leagues and community and club sports.

To encourage this, Mr Cameron announced that competitive team sports are to be made compulsory for all primary school children in England. A draft curriculum in the autumn will require participation in sports such as hockey, football and netball. The current primary curriculum, the Government states, is too long and prescriptive, and refers to concepts like “games activities” rather than recognised sports.

The YST has supported the policy but has warned that in primary schools there are no specialist PE teachers so it will be critical to provide additional training and support.

The policy debate

With sports high on the political and popular agendas, school sports policies have come under intense scrutiny over the last couple of months. The Prime Minister has responded to criticism that the Government is not doing enough to create an Olympic legacy in schools by stating that £1 billion is being invested in school sports over the next four years.

“We need a big cultural change — a cultural change in favour of competitive sports”, he has also said. “The problem has been too many schools not wanting to have competitive sport, some teachers not wanting to join in and play their part.”

His criticism was rejected by teachers who said Mr Cameron had ignored the huge contribution many teachers made to school sport. The Association of School and College Leaders pointed to reduced funding for the School Sport Partnership programme and the sale of school playing fields as key issues.

The YTS praised the “fantastic work going on in schools to deliver sport from some very dedicated staff” and stated that “what many of these passionate people lack is simply the time and resource to deliver PE and sport as they know it can be”.

The opposition also criticised the Government’s decision in 2010 to end the requirement that schools in England provide pupils with at least two hours (the minimum expected in schools in other parts of the UK) of sport a week, saying support structures needed to be placed at the grassroots to inspire the next generation.

The playing field debate

The argument over school playing fields has focused on the fact that if the country is to ensure an Olympic legacy, the Government must ensure that schools provide space for competitive sports, training and play. This provision, critics claim, may be in danger through the sale of playing fields.

A total of 31 plans to sell off school playing fields in England have been approved by the Government since it came to power. The sales have proved controversial but the Government has defended its actions saying that sales have only been approved where the school in question had closed or merged, or if equal or better facilities were being put in their place.

Concerns have also been expressed that revised regulations on school premises may make it easier for secondary schools to sell playing fields. Currently the minimum area of team game playing fields is defined by the Education (School Premises) Regulations 1999 and depends on the number of pupils at the school and their ages. However, following a consultation which proposed a simplification of the rules, a revised set of regulations — the School Premises (England) Regulations 2012 (effective from October 2012) — require only “suitable outdoor space” to be provided in order to enable physical education.

The Department for Education has defended the new approach by saying that the changes are merely intended to remove “bureaucratic restrictions” and that their policies around school playing fields, including the strict rules relating to their sale and disposal, remain in place. The Department has said that in the next 12 months it will publish guidance with a formula setting out the minimum outside space schools would have to provide, although it has yet to consult on this.

The Fields in Trust, a UK charity that protects recreational spaces, says that it is vital to protect both school and public outdoor spaces where young people can discover and hone their talent. The YTS agrees, stating that school and council facilities should not only be protected but should also be opened up after hours wherever possible for community use.

Equal opportunities?

Another debate has focused on the relative contribution of state and independent schools.

Lord Moynihan, the Chair of the British Olympic Association (BOA), pointed out that more than half of Great Britain’s medallists at the Beijing Olympics came from independent schools, despite only seven per cent of children in the country being privately educated. His concern is that a relatively high number of the country's top athletes are the products of private schools and that state education could be failing to adequately nurture sporting talent.

Leading independent schools often have better sports resources than state schools, many of a professional standard, including coaching. Maintained schools generally have not been able to provide comparable opportunities due to restrictions in funding. The BOA has therefore demanded more inclusion for maintained school pupils and has urged that all independent schools should share their sports facilities with state schools, identifying this as an “essential part” of the public requirement under which private schools maintain their charitable status.

Lord Moynihan states that primary schools in particular should be able to benefit from the facilities and coaching expertise of top schools in the same area, and although many independent schools are already engaged in such community support, all schools across the board should be involved.

Last reviewed 6 November 2012