Podgy, breathless and ready for a heart attack

Roger Black's show about children's fitness is shaming

Listeners to Radio 4 live in fear of celebrity presenters and reality-show-style gimmicks. Thus, many of them will have trembled on hearing of Roger Black's Olympic Challenge (11am, 26-28 February), in which the Atlanta 400m silver medallist joined staff at a London comprehensive in an effort to get the students fitter and more active, using 2012 as an incentive.

However, appearances can be deceptive. Thanks to my responsibilities to this column, I stuck with the series and I'm glad I did. Well, sort of. I can't say it was exactly a pleasure. I'm still seething; and when I'm not seething, I'm ashamed; and when I'm not ashamed, I'm depressed. In the days since it finished, I have twice considered sending a CD of it to Richard Caborn, Tessa Jowell and Alan Johnson, all of whom are up to their necks in the disgrace it exposed. But what would be the point? In 1997, Labour came to power pledging that no more school playing fields would be sold off. Since then, another 2,500 have been lost. Promises, promises.

By the end of the term that Black spent at Hurlingham and Chelsea School, his year eight group was more motivated, better able to run around and, thanks to the extra exercise, more attentive in other classes. But it was impossible to take heart from this, because most schools do not have a Roger Black or a BBC production crew on their case, and even this school would reap the benefits for just one term.

Black is a breezy, optimistic kind of a bloke, but he was clearly stunned by what he found at Hurlingham and Chelsea, a fairly typical inner-city school: no grass at all; peeling paint in a sports hall only 20m long with ceilings too low for games such as badminton; and a core curriculum to which PE had only recently been reinstated. He duly tested the students' fitness: some could not (or would not) sprint from one end of the gym to the other. The school has 650 students, yet when he held a meeting at which he hoped to enthuse about his plans, only three turned up.

Oh, it was soul-destroying. I couldn't bear the way Black had no choice but to lower his expectations, moving from being appalled at the children's lack of competitive instinct to being grateful that they even brought their kit. And he was too often faced with the most pathetic kind of bureaucracy.

On finding a local park that would be perfect for races, he was told immediately of the health and safety implications - some child might twist its ankle in a drain! - and informed that a sports day the school had once planned to hold there had been cancelled due to litter and dog mess. Then there were the children. It wasn't just that they wanted to get out of sport that worried me - I used to hate running out on to a freezing hockey pitch myself. But these children had simply given in to a kind of institutional laziness. "I can't be bothered, yeah?" said one. I reserve the greater part of my ire, however, for the government.

The Department for Education says that 100 per cent of schools accede to its recommendation that pupils do two hours of PE a week. This is a lie. At Hurlingham and Chelsea, the children do an hour and 40 minutes. It can't be an isolated example. As Black faced his podgy, breathless, heart-attack-ready 12-year-olds, I thought of Tessa Jowell and her obsession with size zero models. It seemed an even bigger and even dumber red herring than usual.

Pick of the week

Drama on 3 – The Fiery World: a play of William Blake by Peter Ackroyd
4 March, 8pm, Radio 3
Robert Glenister plays the poet, charged with sedition in 1805.

The Jeremy Vine Show
5 March, 12 noon, Radio 2
Vine invites listeners to "Vote a Vehicle Off the Roads". If only.

Don't miss . . .

Lily Allen on tour

Lily Allen was the breakthrough act of 2006 - but how will 2007 treat her? The prospects are looking good, with a Glastonbury appearance rumoured for the summer. She's also spending lots of time in the States, where she is presumably looking to give the remarkably successful British rapper Lady Sovereign a run for her money. On Allen's UK tour this month (besides "Smile", "LDN" and other tunes from Alright, Still, her ska-influenced debut album), concert-goers will have the chance to hear unreleased tracks such as the 50 Cent parody "Nan, You're a Window Shopper".

Touring Cambridge, Glasgow, Manchester and London between 6 and 12 March. More details from: http://www.lilyallenmusic.com

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery