What could the election mean for young people?

by Alison Oliver, Chief Executive, Youth Sport Trust

What could the election mean for young people?Two years ago, at the end of the parliamentary term of the coalition government, the Youth Sport Trust laid out a comprehensive manifesto for PE and school sport, ‘Unlocking Potential’. It made a compelling case for the role PE and sport plays in giving all young people a right to physical literacy,  enhancing physical and emotional  wellbeing, developing leadership and employability skills and driving school achievement.

Launched at the House of Lords, the Youth Sport Trust hosted headteachers from across the country and MPs from all parties who pledged to Champion PE and School Sport. Now, two years on, with the election ahead and all three main party manifestos out, Youth Sport Trust Chief Executive, Alison Oliver, takes a look at what the politicians’ latest pledges might mean for PE and school sport going forward:

The key asks of our 2015 manifesto still reflect our priorities. Childhood Obesity remains a significant challenge, with research from the Obesity Health Alliance last year highlighting the relationship between socio-economic status, obesity and social mobility. Given the link between obesity at age 11 and poorer academic achievement in GCSE’s five years later; this is a social mobility issue in every sense.

In addition to obesity, too many young children continue to fall considerably shy of the Chief Medical Officer’s recommended guidelines for daily physical activity (60 active minutes) with all the associated costs to our health service later in life. In addition the declining mental health of young people has also been well documented and is reported on a daily basis in the press. 

So, what are the pertinent references within the three manifestos that might help tackle some of these challenges for the nation?

Labour

First out of the blocks with their manifesto, they make a commitment to a £250m Children’s Health Fund targeting obesity, dental health, under fives and mental health. This would be accompanied by a new Index of Child Health to measure progress against international standards and their four target areas. The Labour Party also committed to publishing a new Childhood Obesity strategy in their first 100 days in government which will include tackling food labelling and junk food advertising – something the previous government’s childhood obesity plan stopped short of last summer.

Labour’s accompanying funding document intimated that their new arts premium would be funded from the soft drinks industry levy (aka the sugar levy tax).

Whilst there were strong commitments in the sport section of the manifesto in relation to football fans and a fairer system of ticketing for sporting events, PE and school sport in general were notably absent from the manifesto.

Liberal Democrats

Close on the heels of Labour came the manifesto of the Lib Dems. Education is a major feature of their manifesto launch, which included an expanded commitment to free school meals for all primary aged school children, and the greater promotion of breakfast clubs.

There is the expected strong commitment to tackling mental health that one associates with the Lib Dems who have steadfastedly championed this issue over the last few years, in addition they make a commitment to a ‘Five a Day’ campaign of steps people can take to improve their own mental resilience.

There is also a curriculum commitment to PSHE in this manifesto (currently not statutory), and the inclusion of mental health education for students within this. This would be mirrored by a parallel pledge to deliver mental health training for all teaching staff. Promoting wellbeing would be a statutory duty of a school and part of the Ofsted Inspection framework under the Lib Dems.

Larger pledges includes a National Wellbeing strategy with wellbeing for all at the heart of government policy, alongside a new childhood obesity strategy also focusing on restricting junk food advertising until after the 9pm watershed.

Conservatives

Last in the trio of leading party manifestos was that of the Conservative Party. The Conservatives make a pledge to ‘continue to take action to reduce childhood obesity’ by ‘promoting efforts to reduce unhealthy ingredients and providing clearer food information for consumers’ (although nothing specific was included on the issue of junk food advertising).

Positively this manifesto does make a pledge to ‘continue to support school sport, delivering on our commitment to double support for sports in primary schools’. This was the only manifesto to overtly pledge funding to school sport and is really good news providing much needed continuity for primary schools.

In addition, there is a pledge to take focused action to provide the support needed by children and young people in terms of their mental health with a promised ‘green paper on young people’s mental health by the end of the year’. There is also a commitment to mental first aid training for teachers and ‘every child learning about mental wellbeing and the mental health risks of the internet harms in the curriculum’ too.

Finally on school funding, the Conservatives propose they will provide further funding into the school system they would stop universal infant free school meals and offer a ‘free school breakfast to every child in every year of primary school’.

Three things struck me on reflecting on these manifestos.
  1. Mental health in young people in particular is a major theme of all three manifestos but no party is yet making the link between undertaking physical activity, high quality PE and sport and good mental wellbeing. The evidence base for this is well documented as is the sense of belonging and positive personal identity that can be generated by playing sport together.

As one of our straight-talking headteacers put it recently: “I don’t know about you, but I’ve rarely seen a child who is involved in teams and sports who has these problems”. Anyone watching the recent ‘Mind of Marathon’ programme with Prince Harry could be in no doubt of the benefits of physical activity and sporting goals for those with mental health challenges.

  1. While the Conservatives have restated their commitment to the Primary PE and school sport, all parties have overlooked what is happening in our secondary schools where we know curriculum time is being cut at the exact age when arguably the pressures of mental health, body image and social media isolation becoming increasingly apparent, and, its scope to help young people navigate these is at its greatest.
  2. Overall, there seems to be a decline in the social significance of sport – with the London Olympics and Paralympics behind us now, we seem to have lost the drive to not only ensure that all young people have a right to physical literacy, but also that a joined up, well thought through approach to PE and school sport can underpin effective health, education and sport policies.

Given these reflections the Youth Sport Trust calls on all politicians to re-visit the need to protect and value the contribution PE and school sport makes to the lifechances, life lessons and lifeskills of young people.  At a time when young people’s physical, social and emotional wellbeing is declining, social mobility is a growing concern, and the need for young people to achieve in the classroom is as strong as ever, we hope future policy and investment will maximize this huge untapped resource in our schools. Through repositioning PE and sport outcomes within education, refreshing teacher traning and reinvigorating the curriculum, we are clear about the huge advances could be made. 

So we hope, whoever wins the election, the place of PE in schools, particularly secondary schools, will be understood as a major contributor to young people’s wellbeing, leadership and achievement. 

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