Jeremy Hunt defends government attempts to honour Olympic legacy

Powered by article titled “Jeremy Hunt defends government attempts to honour Olympic legacy” was written by Owen Gibson, for The Guardian on Monday 9th January 2012 23.01 UTC

The culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has launched a wide‑ranging defence of the government’s faltering attempts to honour the Olympic legacy promises that helped to secure the London Games, unveiling a plan to invest £1bn in youth and grass-roots sport over five years.

Attempts to use the Games as a driver to inspire more people to play sport and exercise more have come in for widespread criticism, as have recent cuts to the national school sport budget.

The Guardian revealed last year that the government planned to drop an inherited target to use the “inspirational power” of the looming Games to get 1m people playing more sport. The government was also forced into a partial U-turn in its plans to axe the £162m ring-fenced national budget for school sport after an outcry but has restored only around half the funding as part of a revamped School Games strategy.

Hunt said he had been working with Sport England, the funding body for grassroots sport that was able to deliver only an increase of 111,800 against the 1m target, for six months on a new strategy that would focus resources more effectively and halt a slide in young people playing sport.

“If we were going to do the blame game, I would say we didn’t inherit any realistic possibility of delivering that target,” Hunt told the Guardian.

The new scheme will concentrate the £450m invested through national governing bodies in the four years from 2013 on youth sport. Of that investment 60% will be targeted at young people from 14 to 25. But overall national targets will be dropped.

“We’re going to put in some very wriggle room-free measures. Our definition of sport as a habit for life is someone who plays sport once a week at 16, 18 and 24,” said Hunt.

The strategy will see new school-based sports clubs established, with links to one or more sports’ national governing bodies. There will be additional investment to open up school facilities to the community.

Coaches will run sessions designed to build links between schools and local sports clubs already in existence in their area. Football has pledged that 2,000 of their clubs will be linked to secondary schools by 2017, rugby union 1,300 clubs, cricket 1,250 clubs and rugby league and tennis 1,000 clubs each.

Hunt said he trusted the governing bodies to deliver even though 17 sports have recorded a decline in the number of people playing once a week since 2007‑08 and only four – mountaineering, athletics, netball and table tennis – have recorded a statistically significant increase.

“They want to do more. They are really interested in youth sport participation. They feel much more confident they can deliver for us.”

However, Hunt said the government and Sport England would be far tougher on sports that failed to deliver against agreed targets, using the “no compromise” creed adopted by UK Sport in elite Olympic sport.

“This is payment by results. If they don’t deliver, the money gets taken away and given to someone else – local sports groups, sports charities. We want the NGBs to be in the driving seat but they have to step up to the plate.

“The thing that people have always talked about being the big missing piece of the jigsaw is how you address the drop-off rate, the fact a third fewer people play sport after their 16th birthday.”

He denied that the plan effectively abandoned the aim of getting older adults to play more sport. “We don’t want to stop them where there are good programmes.”

Hunt said the new strategy was a “radical change in policy” and that local authority cuts to sports facilities in the face of severe funding cuts would not impact on his ability to deliver.

“My impression is that leisure centres are not closing up and down the land and local authorities are finding ways, despite their 28% cut in funding, to keep them open because they recognise how important they are.”

A key part of the legacy vision espoused by Lord Coe that helped to win the Games was the promise to use the 2012 Olympics to inspire more young people to play sport. “London’s vision is to reach young people around the world. To connect them with the inspirational power of the Games. So they are inspired to choose sport,” he said in his 2005 Singapore speech.

The culture secretary, who on Monday attended a cabinet meeting at the Olympic Park, also denied that the focus on youth sport for those as young as 14 was an attempt to fill the hole created when the education secretary, Michael Gove, resolved to cut the budget for national school sport. “We would want to do this completely regardless of what was happening with the school sport budget. This was the right thing to do,” he said.

He said the School Games project, a series of inter- and intra-school competitions that climax in events on the Olympic Park, had reached just over half of all schools.

“There were lots of excellent schools sports partnerships but despite that huge investment, youth participation among those who had left school fell over the same period. It just isn’t right to say everything was rosy in the garden. There were some very serious structural problems we had to face. We want to develop a sports-mad culture in schools driven by heads who understand the power of sport.”

At the weekend, the shadow Olympics secretary, Tessa Jowell, said it was “incomprehensible” to “dismantle” the national programmes for school sport that had been on course to deliver the legacy. Over eight years, the number of children playing two hours or more of sport a week had increased from 20% to 85%.

Jowell said the decision in 2010 of the education secretary, Gove, to withdraw funding for the programme of schools sports partnerships had “undone eight years of work at a stroke”.

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