Cameron sees sense over School Sports Partnerships
The DfE announcement of the decision to axe funding for School Sport Partnerships,which passed an opposition day motion yesterday, proved immediately controversial. Unlike many education policy initiatives SSP’s have in a relatively short time produced astonishingly good results -over 90% of children taking part in at least over two hours of sport a week. Michael Gove’s decision to end ring fencing of the entire £162 million budget threatens every one of the 450 existing SSP’s, and the vast amount of extra sports work they do in communities across the country.
Gove’s decision, which has been the apparent source of intense debate at the heart of government, has drawn derision from across the political spectrum and as far afield as Canada. Yesterday the Government defeated a Labour motion to reassess the decision by a decent majority, seemingly indicating that this policy also has support among a good number of Lib Dem MP’s.
But the plot thickened this afternoonwhen David Cameron gave a hint that he might intervene once again over education policy, saying that he was “looking carefully at the debate that was made yesterday” and that the government were “talking with head teachers and hope to make an announcement soon.” This was a remarkably different line from that taken by Michael Gove yesterday and oddly reminiscent of Andy Burnham’s suggestion that “the best way to resolve the argument is to ask head teachers about the effectiveness of SSP’s.”
The immediate reaction from the massed ranks of media commentators was that this language, a conciliatory response to a soft question was a clear indication that a policy U-turn was on the cards; Nick Robinson saying that “Prime Ministers are busy people and they don’t read debates unless they are worried about something.” In the aftermath of Prime Minister’s Question’s The PM’s spokesman told the BBC that the rethink was because the issue was “being raised by schools at a local level round the country.”
Having already vetoed ministerial decisions which have proved to unpalatable to the media or the public, Mr Cameron would do well to listen to the furore that has been created by this short-sighted decision.
The highly active Twitter campaign to save SSP’s reflects the genuine anger felt by the many thousands of people involved in school sport. A highly critical letter from a group of head teachers called the move “a destructive and a contradictory and self-defeating decision”. Teachers and Labour MP’s were not the only ones to spot the apparent contradiction at the heart of this decision. England goalkeeper David James pointed out David Cameron plans to jet off to Zurich to support England's World Cup bid when his government is about to cut off all funds to the country's school sports partnerships from next spring." This was quickly followed by another letter to the PM from 75 elite British athletes begging him to reconsider what they said risked “destroying everything schools, clubs and the national governing bodies of sport are doing to ensure this and future generations embrace sport."
Such a bulging letter box must have alerted David Cameron to the potential political damage this could cause in the run up to 2012. To do away SSP’s now would potentially make all talk of an Olympic legacy meaningless.
In yesterday’s Commons’ debate Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham did a good job of setting out just what it would mean for schools to lose this provision.He called the move a “senseless act of vandalism defying all logic, leaving people speechless.” What was striking about the debate was the number of interventions from the floor which highlighted good practice in their own area. Many of these were again backed up by passionate petitions from constituents. If public reaction is a reflection of policies worth, then SSP’s must rank as a remarkably effective piece of legislation.
When challenged by Mr Gove to name a cut in the budget which would be acceptable cut to the SSP budget he argued that he would accept “proportional cuts which would keep the infrastructure in place.
This is an uncomfortable situation for Michael Gove who has come under unrelenting criticism and growing speculation that his may be the first head to roll in the coalition’s first reshuffle. Mr Gove has been given a challenging brief, and his reforms were always likely to drawn heavy fire from the opposition, and for this reason he will most likely be allowed to see his project through; nevertheless his motivations for this damaging decision are hard to fathom. At departmental budget level the numbers involved in SSP’s are fairly small, so the motivation cannot be purely financial.
At the core of his argument seems to be the belief that the infrastructure of the SSP system, which has been proven to be effective, is unnecessary bureaucracy which can be done away with.
Although this may, on paper, fit in with the DfE’s wider agenda of reducing prescription in terms of funding streams, it ignores the complex and unique requirements of sports provision across the education system. For example some SSP funding is used to coordinate the sharing of specialist sports coaches among sports colleges and schools with no specialist PE teacher. In other cases, this money pays for after school clubs in a range of sport that children may not get the opportunity to try. Without funding these services will simply cease.
The Prime Minster's words on the subject today were welcomed by all those involved in school sport. Further briefing this evening has revealed that the final decision won't be taken until overall local government funding is finalised. Let’s hope that beyond political point scoring that MP’s from all parties can do what is expected of them and work together to come up with a solution which preserves the integrity of the SSP programme. An initiative which is important for schools, valued by pupils and is delivering remarkable results.