The World Cup in Northfield, school sports funding and how I managed to upset a Government minister…


The World Cup has started and, to celebrate, it was good to visit St Brigid’s School in Northfield on Thursday. They were holding their own World Cup match. It was St Brigid’s England team against St Brigid’s Rest of the World team. It was a close match and England won 3-2.  A good omen? I hope so.

St Brigid’s take sport seriously and rightly so. Sport at school helps to keep our children healthy and active, as well as providing them with extra enthusiasm that can feed into their work in the classroom.  St Brigid’s understand this and are acting on it. They have got a lottery bid in for a new Multi Use Games Area (fingers crossed for that!) and they are already putting to good use around £9,000 of government money, which they won through the Sport Premium Programme. There’s a great atmosphere about the place and sport is part of that.

That brings me to the other thing going on at St Brigid’s when I was there on Thursday. A government Minister was there too. Sajid Javid, the new Culture Secretary, had told the school a couple of days before that he wanted to visit and he had just arrived.

It’s always nice to have Government visitors come to my patch. Unfortunately Culture Secretary Javid didn’t seem to feel the same way about my being there. You see Mr Javid’s visit was not a ministerial one. His office informed me it was in a “party political capacity.” Sure enough,  he had come complete with entourage and with a Conservative candidate in tow – all ready for the photo opportunity. So his entourage dutifully clicked away with their cameras, doing their best to mark the occasion without getting that pesky Labour MP in shot. Meanwhile, behind the smiles, Minister and candidate looked distinctly irritated to have me there. I guess they’ll get over it.  After all, there’s always Photoshop to fall back on.

The Minister was there to promote images of a Conservative Government investing record amounts in school sport, and of how well St Brigid’s are using the money available to them. I agree with him on the second bit. Unfortunately the first bit is smoke and mirrors. His Government’s record on sport in schools is not one of which he should be proud.

Under the last Labour Government there were two forms of funding for school sports – £162 million for the School Sport Partnership (SSP) programme, and additional ring-fenced funding for specialist sports colleges.  This investment in school sports produced produced real results. When Labour took office in 1997 just 1 in 4 school children were doing 2 or more hours sport a week. By 2010 that had risen to 90%.

Unfortunately both forms of funding have been cut or changed by the present Conservative-led Government. They abolished the £162 million SSP programme and ended ring-fenced funding for sport colleges. Alongside the Government savaging of local budgets, these cuts have had a serious impact on sport in schools and on levels of physical activity. 68% of school sports organisers have reported reduced sports participation since funding cuts have bitten. The number of those active in sport aged 16 and over has also gone down for the first time since 2005. The new sport premium goes nowhere near filling the gap the Government have created. Instead of building on the great legacy of the Olympics, David Cameron is squandering the opportunity.

So yes, it’s great that St Brigid’s and other schools are putting their sports premium money to such good use. But that doesn’t let the government off the hook, particularly when a cross-party inquiry by Parliament’s Education Select Committee has reported that many schools still lack the facilities needed for young people to get involved in sport.

Photos over at St Brigid’s, Culture Secretary and Tory candidate were whisked off for another spot of flag-waving – this time at Birmingham’s new city centre library. I didn’t join them. Had I done so, I might have had words with them about how the unfairness in Government’s funding for Birmingham is feeding through to cuts in library opening hours in Northfield and elsewhere. Maybe  next time.

Still, staying behind meant I was able to watch the end of St Brigid’s World Cup match. It was a pleasure to present the trophy to the captain of the winning team – interestingly the one girl in the match.  And, yes, being  a politician, I even managed a couple of photo opportunities myself to mark the occasion! St Brigid’s England team then set off on a lap of honour in true World Cup style with waving flags, banging drums and very vocal set of fans.

Let’s hope St Brigid’s World Cup heralds an England victory in Brazil and, who knows, maybe even a change in the Government’s approach to school sport.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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