Following weeks of tension over school reopening plans the government and unions clashed on Wednesday (17th June), with debate focused on social distancing rules, school buildings and class sizes, so far very little, if anything, has been said about the reintroduction of sport in schools.
As politicians, scientists and education experts look at solutions to open schools safely, there seems to be an “unspoken consensus” that sport in schools will not return for quite some time, and that’s a problem for professional sports teams and organisations (as well as media outlets and broadcasters). Because, if the current generation of school children do not have ample opportunity to engage, participate and fall in love with sport, where will the next influx of talent or fans and spectators come from?
Nutrition – as was so admirably highlighted by Marcus Rashford this week – and physical activity are essential features of the education system that are not readily available to every child in Britain outside the structured school day.
With the cost of sports facilities and clubs prohibitively expensive to many, and playing outside not always an option for those in more deprived areas due to a lack of green space or because the streets are not safe, opportunities for sports participation are increasingly only available to wealthier families.
Sport for all should be a fundamental principle of our society and a child’s ability to play and take part in school sports should not be determined by their wealth or social background, but if the coronavirus pandemic forces sport from our schools for a prolonged period it is likely this emerging disparity will be increased even further.
This concern is strengthened after Sport England recently released data which showed almost one in three children have been less physically active during lockdown, and one in ten have done no physical activity at all.
Sport is one of the few places in life where there remains a true meritocracy, we cannot lose that.
Whilst it is obvious that we cannot immediately resume the pre-lockdown school structure, and we will have to make some accommodations to facilitate a safe, mass return to the public education system, it is important to remember that physical activity is just as vital to the holistic development and wellbeing of a child as much as academic subjects are.
Beyond the obvious health benefits, sport teaches children how to communicate, how to problem solve, how to organise and encourage others through teamwork and leadership, how to win and lose with dignity, and much more. These lessons aren’t just relevant on the field of play but in life too.
Sport is a fundamental part of our culture and, whether on a macro or micro scale, has the power to change society and attitudes. This was clearly evident earlier this week when Rashford successfully campaigned to see the free school meals scheme extended into the summer holidays and Raheem Sterling lead a video campaign calling for a change in the way black people are treated and represented in football and wider society.
What kids learn in school today determines the future of our country, and as a nation we seem to be expecting more from our professional sports stars when it comes to social responsibility and shaping society. If we want to continue to develop well rounded sports stars with a social conscience, in turn we need to treat the development of a sports career within the education system with the same significance and respect afforded to academic professions. This would require the post-lockdown return of sport at schools to be regarded with the same level of importance as science and maths.
It should be a national priority for us to make sure that today’s kids have the opportunity to participate in sport when school returns. For so many kids, sports isn’t just something they do; it’s part of their identity. We can’t let them lose that.
As Nelson Mandela said: “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.” In a time when children of the UK need hope, we should not overlook how much a return to sport in our schools would enrich their lives.
Jamie Fox is one of the United Kingdom’s leading sports communications professionals. He has worked in senior positions for various national teams, Olympic Organising Committees, national governing bodies and international federations - including the International Cricket Council, British Athletics and Team GB, Harlequins rugby club and the Australian Athletics team.