Coalition backtracks on primary school sports cuts

The Schools Sports Partnership will no longer be scrapped, but will still have its funding reduced.

The coalition's ill-conceived plan to scrap the School Sport Partnership has been partially reversed. Elements of the SSP will remain until at least the 2012 Olympics, after Michael Gove attempted to scrap the scheme back in November.

But the news is not all good.

The programme will still suffer heavy cuts: central funding will be reduced and staff will be sacked.

The compromise comes after pressure from high-profile athletes, such as the diver Tom Daley and the former heptathlete Denise Lewis, who criticised the scrapping of the scheme.

The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt (that's Hunt, Jim Naughtie), lobbied from within cabinet against scrapping the SSP. He argued that cutting the scheme before the Olympics would damage the idea that London 2012 would increase public participation in sports.

Though not quite a U-turn (it could perhaps be labelled an R-turn, with the coalition heading off in a new, slightly less damaging direction), the coalition's handling of the SSP has been less than exemplary.

David Cameron had previously labelled the scheme a "complete failure". In one of the Prime Minister's less fine moments at the despatch box, he said:

The number of schools offering rugby [sic – Cameron meant Rugby Union], hockey, netball and gymnastics actually fell under the previous government.

What Cameron failed to mention was that this negligible drop (of between 1 and 5 per cent) was more than compensated for by a huge uptake in less orthodox sports that did not involve chasing a ball around a field.

As Des Kelly pointed out in his fine demolition of Gove's plan to scrap the SSP:

Cameron . . . blithely ignored the fact that the number of state schools offering Rugby League, football, athletics, cricket, tennis, basketball, cycling, golf, badminton, table tennis, volleyball, canoeing, archery, fitness classes, mountaineering, rowing, sailing, judo, karate, boxing, lacrosse, squash, equestrian sports, triathlon and even skateboarding, dance and orienteering had gone up.

In other words – no doubt thanks to a very dodgy brief – Cameron gave an extremely misleading impression of the SSP.

Before the SSP, each state school offered 14 sports on average – now they offer 19. So what if people play a bit less Rugby Union? The important thing was that the SSP worked: kids did more sport and got to try new things.

That the scheme will be reduced is not a good thing. But a limited SSP is better than no SSP at all.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.