This Sporting Life

Benjamin Disraeli once said: “The essence of
education is the education of the body.” Yet is sport being ignored
as a way of educating young people and improving the quality of
life of disabled people? Graham Hopkins reports.

Jamie Lynch (not his real name) is a
12-year-old foster child. He doesn’t like school much. And he
really hates maths. He becomes irritable and aggressive at his own
inability to work out, for example, his times tables and is
regularly excluded for such outbursts of frustration. But ask him
how many points would his favourite team, Tottenham Hotspur, have
if they had won six games, drawn three and lost four, and he
replies, somewhat disdainfully, “21 points from 13 games? Not
exactly championship form. Again.”

For children and young people, sport has a
powerful ability to educate. And it can appeal directly to people
like Jamie who are further disadvantaged by exclusion from school –
incidences of which have risen four-fold through the 1990s.
Children in care are 10 times more likely to be excluded than their
classmates. Similarly, black children are more than three times as
likely to be excluded as white children. In all, nearly 75 per cent
of those leaving care at 16 do so without a qualification –
compared with 4 per cent of the population as a

The Playing for Success scheme is one attempt
to exploit the attraction of sport – in this case, football. The
Department for Education and Skills joined forces with Premiership
and football league clubs to set up classrooms – study support
centres – in their stadiums. The scheme is aimed at disaffected
children, or “underachievers” in government-speak – a badge, if
ever one was needed, for looked-after children. The aim is to
develop their confidence, self-esteem and motivation. Leeds United
Football Club runs one in partnership with Leeds Council.

The club’s Elland Road stadium shines with
success and wealth in an area of disaffection and disadvantage: 45
per cent of households in the inner south Leeds area are on
benefits; 12 per cent of the local population are from ethnic
minorities; and 43 per cent of pupils fall below level four (the
level of achievement expected for their age) in maths, and English
at key stage two (pupils aged 8-11).

The study centre is based under the south
stand and has three rooms: a cyber caf‚, IT suite and project
room. It was designed, decorated and furnished by another partner –
IKEA, which as part of its own staff development programme releases
staff to support children on courses.

The walls are filled with large photographs of
players, “not in posing positions, but demonstrating skill, effort
and celebrating achievement,” says Steve Smith, study support
manager. “By creating this atmosphere we aim to give each person a
new challenge and fresh identity as a learner.” There were concerns
that the centre would only attract white boys interested in
football. But there have been equal numbers of boys and girls, of
whom about 10 per cent are from ethnic minorities.

“There is little doubt in my mind that the
pull of Leeds United has significant impact on local young people,”
adds Smith. “Success by association is a powerful, motivating tool.
Children feel special by attending the centre.” The involvement of
children often engages parents, particularly fathers, to take an
interest in learning – something Smith says has a significant
effect on children’s motivation.

Naturally, there are strong public relations
and business benefits for the football clubs involved. They can be
seen to be giving something back to their own communities while
developing a brand loyalty and fan base for the future.

But while sport can offer a stimulating
learning environment, it is the taking part that has the most to
offer. Sport has long been out of the blocks in the race against
social exclusion. It can offer a healthy lifestyle alternative to
drug misuse and crime – an antidote to anti-social behaviour. Chris
Goldie, national director of the charity SportsAid, argues: “We are
absolutely convinced that providing young people, particularly
those in areas of deprivation and those with behavioural problems,
with sporting opportunities is hugely important to encourage these
youngsters to become responsible members of our society.”

The government agrees. It claims sport can
contribute to neighbourhood renewal by improving communities’
“performance” on four key indicators – health, crime, employment
and education.2

Fair play. But surely even those in sport know
there may be a gulf between the sea of theory and the dry land of
achievement – between what it can do on those muddied, non-level
playing fields of wider social development and what it does do.

Unfortunately, as it has never been monitored
or evaluated in any reliable way or systematic way, no-one can be
sure of sport’s achievements. It possibly achieves little on its
own. It needs sound and effective teamwork with others, such as
recreation, community education, neighbourhood regeneration and
youth services to ensure longer-lasting success.

Sport encourages young people to take control
of their own bodies, making them feel better about themselves,
which, naturally, can improve their well-being and self-esteem. But
when it comes to active participation, choice is a big factor.
Unfortunately, the least active and least healthy children are
unlikely to turn to sport or physical recreation through their own

Nonetheless, the success of any sports
participation for young people is dependent on reassurance that
“people just like them” take part, enjoy themselves and even excel.
This was certainly the inspiration behind the launch, in April
2000, of Wimbledon Disabled Football Club – a partnership between
the Limbless Association and Wimbledon FC. Professional coaches
from the club take junior and senior team training weekly and
matches are arranged.

Sam Gallop, double amputee, ex-pilot and
chairperson of the Limbless Association, says: “Professional
footballers are the idols of disabled kids everywhere. They are
showing them the way to integrated sport above and beyond their

However, look down that integrated way and
you’ll see anything but an easy ride in prospect. Martin
McElhatton, chief executive of the British Wheelchair Sports
Foundation, is dismayed at the current state of play: “With many
children in mainstream schools the provision of sport for children
with disabilities is poor. This could be improved by making it
mandatory for any child with a disability to be offered an
appropriate sporting opportunity.”

That disabled young people are largely
excluded from sport was proven last year by a Sport England survey
Young People with a Disability and Sport.3 This
report – tellingly the first of its kind – shows that while the
desire to participate in sport is high (only 10 per cent said they
lacked the desire or motivation to do so), opportunities to do so
are scarce. As many as 45 per cent of all young disabled people are
receiving less than one hour physical education per week at school
– compared with 18 per cent of non-disabled people. This figure
rises alarmingly to 53 per cent in primary schools. More than one
in four young disabled people take no part in sport in or out of

In response, sports minister Richard Caborn
delivered the “Yes, we’ve got much to do” line with aplomb. But
Dennis Hodgkins, regional development manager for the English
Federation of Disability Sports, believes those responsible for
developing sports should be made more accountable: “If a sport has
a governing body that controls and develops that sport for everyone
in the community, why has disabled people’s involvement been
minimal or in many cases nil? If these bodies renege on conditions
by which they are funded, then the funds should be removed and they
should be named and shamed.”

And there’s no prize money for guessing that
sport is still on the bench when it comes to finance. As Goldie
says: “It’s hard to believe that the government of a country that
has footballers earning £50,000 a week spends less than
£1 per person per week on sport.”

With so little money available, sport is
chronically dependent on volunteers. And while this encourages the
noble notion of community participation, it also opens the field to
the less than noble. Sport can provide easy access for abusers. A
study in Norway in 2000 showed that 51 per cent of athletes had
experienced sexual harassment or abuse. Last year another study,
this time in Australia, showed that 21.9 per cent of elite athletes
had experienced abuse in their lives, half of which occurred in
sport. It is felt that UK research, commissioned this year, will
serve only to confirm the worst suspicions.

As the leader of the country’s leading sport,
the Football Association has recognised its duty to protect
children. The FA, in partnership with the NSPCC, has made child
protection a mandatory element in coaching courses, medical
education courses and referee training. “It’s important,” says Tony
Pickerin, head of child protection and education at the FA, “that
football becomes more enjoyable and safer for young people.”

And while football provides young people with
waves of role models, the sport has seen those waves crash with
alarming regularity. “All youngsters need heroes and sport provides
them. But those heroes must be aware of their need to behave, as
well as perform, heroically,” says Goldie.

Disabled people also look to their own
champions for inspiration. “By trying a range of sports under the
guidance of experienced coaches and senior athletes, the young
people are given role models, heroes and heroines to aspire to,”
says McElhatton.

One such is Tanni Grey-Thompson, OBE,
Britain’s most famous paralympian gold medallist: “We need to
tackle the situation now, to allow opportunities to be improved at
all levels and to provide a range of sporting chances to be given
to all youngsters both within and beyond the education system,” she

The potential of sport is there for all to
see. It’s more than just a healthy pastime. It has the ability to
educate. PE, after all, stands for physical education. And sport
can stand for self-esteem, participation, opportunity, respect and
tolerance. Perhaps it should stand for parliament, too. As Jim
Parry, sports ethics expert at Leeds University, says: “Globally it
is a force for good in the world, proving that despite our
differences, we are pretty much the same. It contributes to mutual
understanding and brings people together under a system of agreed
rules. If only politics could achieve so much!”

One politician who has tried to achieve those
ideals is the former South African president Nelson Mandela, who in
fighting for a definition of the potential of sport certainly came
off the fence: “Sport has the power to change the world, the power
to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else
can. It speaks to people in a language they understand. Sport can
create hope where there was once only despair. It breaks down all
racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all kinds of
discrimination…spreading hope to the world.” And, when it comes
to hope, sport, like the boy Mandela, has done brilliant.

1 Social Exclusion Unit,
Raising the Educational Attainment of Children in Care,
Cabinet Office, October 2001

2 Policy Action Team 10
report, Arts and Sport, Department of Culture, Media and
Sport, 1999

3 Naomi Finch ed, Young
People with a Disability and Sport
, Sport England,

Results round up

Sport can provide:

– Leadership.

– A decrease in truancy.

– A meeting place.

– A “meaning” to life.

– The means to take responsibility for own

– An opportunity to learn social skills –
tolerance, respect for others.

– Something constructive to do.

– A means of releasing stress.

– An opportunity for racial integration.

– Improved quality of life.

– Self-esteem, self-confidence and

– A reduction in vandalism and crime.

– Improved mental health – it can reduce

– Active citizenship through volunteering.

– A shared sense of belonging, a common

– It gives people something to talk about.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.