All deserve a sporting chance

March 26, 2004

Education is right to nurture sport as it widens access and fosters personal growth, says Deian Hopkin

Almost 50 years ago, a 25-year-old student doctor ran the first four-minute mile, at Oxford University's Iffley Road running track. In Roger Bannister's day, of course, the standard training regime was not exactly rigorous - work out for just an hour a day and eat largely whatever you fancy; Bannister's trick was to train a little more and eat a little less.

At the time, sportsmen at university were not exactly renowned for their academic prowess, and athletes outside had to rely on impoverished amateur clubs to nurture their talent.

How things have changed, as two revealing and encouraging new reports on higher education and sport published this week by Universities UK and Sport England explain. For one thing, sport has gradually merged with wellbeing and healthy living. About 5 per cent of the student population engages in organised sport, but far more use fitness centres and running tracks to improve their general condition, as do staff of all ages.

Sport has also become an important arm of outreach and widening participation. Where once there were only extramural classes in pre-Raphaelite art, now we have sports ambassadors' schemes and community programmes aimed at providing new routes to progression.

Nowadays, university sports facilities are open to the public three-quarters of the time, and one in three users is external. Like their US counterparts, UK universities are beginning to turn their attention to bursaries and scholarships to encourage promising athletes; such awards will become more attractive if tuition fees rise.

Sadly, in sport, as in other aspects of life, it is an unequal world.

Whereas 91 per cent of universities have grass pitches and 40 per cent a swimming pool, the relative figure for schools is 58 per cent and 5 per cent; in Hackney only 14 per cent of schools have a grass area of any kind.

This is why it is important to have partnerships between universities, colleges and schools, such as those created to deliver the Active Sports strategies. The London Active Partnership, based at my university, is delivering its programmes in partnership with 32 local boroughs, more than 30 sports organisations, ten sports governing bodies and hundreds of schools and colleges.

Sport hasn't always been a top priority in education, and I say that as someone who suffered rather than enjoyed the obligatory cross-country runs and wet rugby games of my schooldays. We also have to accept that engagement with sport declines very rapidly among many young people as they enter their teens. Boys of 11 to 13 are equally attracted by the thought of winning the lottery or succeeding at sport, but within three years, the lottery is ahead four to one - such are the material expectations of 16-year-olds.

Yet for many young people, especially those who live in bleak high-rise blocks, sport may well offer a gateway to a life they could not imagine otherwise. A brilliant young athlete at my university, the product of an inner-city environment, has now won Commonwealth gold, been nominated as sports student of the year and gained the kind of self-assurance and poise that comes from having travelled the world, met the Queen and, most important, attended an awards ceremony with David Beckham.

Few of us will win gold or break a world record, but exposure to a university's sporting facilities can sometimes open the door to other opportunities; a Saturday session in table tennis can, with a little imagination, spill over into a class in art or even science. University sport has also changed. It now has less overt emphasis on pure competition and focuses more on personal development, nutrition and wellbeing. Besides, with growing concern about obesity in our society, we can all do with training a bit more and eating a bit less. And before anyone says anything - I'm just off to do a bit of rowing myself.

Deian Hopkin is vice-chancellor of London South Bank University.

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