Access to sport under threat

Fewer facilities and rising costs are blocks

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For 150 years being paid to play football has given working-class young men such as Fergus Suter, the star of Julian Fellowes drama The English Game, and Marcus Rashford the chance to lead rewarding lives. Now experts are warning these chances are diminishing because of fewer facilities and the rising costs of playing sport.

At 23 years of age Macauley Musgrave from Penrith wants to make football his career. After undertaking FA coaching courses, he trained local sides and also teams at the Cumbria Football Academy. While he works part time at a supermarket, he is aiming for qualifications that will allow him to coach young people up to 16 and become an assistant coach at professional clubs. But until he began coaching, Musgrave was “unaware of how few decent facilities there are”, he said.

Double booked

“At my first session the pitch was double booked. The council owns Frenchfield Sports Centre, which has grass pitches. For young people, few of whom live near grass areas, getting there means a mile walk as it is outside Penrith. Large demand means you can’t just turn up and play with mates. There are no floodlights, ruling out playing on dark nights.

“Penrith Rugby Union Club has floodlights for its artificial pitch but it costs £75 an hour for a quarter of a pitch. Unless junior football clubs find alternative income sources, and that is difficult, then many children from poorer backgrounds are from my experience missing out as they cannot afford the fees the clubs must charge to recoup their costs from hiring pitches.”

Across the Pennines in Halifax some local junior clubs have been reporting difficulties in finding publicly owned pitches to play on. “We have hired a private grass pitch this season,” said Ian, coach of St Columba’s under 13 team, which plays on Sunday mornings.

“For many years we used a council pitch facility but last season it was not getting cut or marked up before games and one of the goalposts was dangerous and needed replacing.”

As well as a shortage of facilities, others say young people do not get enough time to play sport.

Tony Gavin a retired headteacher at a specialist sports school in Guisborough, North Yorkshire, believes former education secretary Michael Gove’s decision to scrap the Schools Sports Partnership (SSP), which guaranteed three hours of quality and varied sports, had reduced young people’s chances to learn activities that could keep them fit into adulthood. In 2018, the Youth Sports Trust reported that 38 per cent of English secondary schools had cut timetabled physical education for 14-16 years since 2012. Gavin contends that as a result fewer state schools now have football teams in competitive leagues.

“Schools are judged on results,” said Gavin. “Young people in years 10 and 11 rarely get two hours sport each week because PE lessons get dropped to facilitate additional mathematics and English.”

With most facilities out of bounds lockdown has currently slashed young people’s opportunities to play sport. Yet according to official statistics physical activity had been rising among young people.

Government guidelines recommend that young people should get one hour, equally split between in and out of school, of daily physical activity and Sport England reported that “active children are happier, more resilient and more trusting of others”.

Sport England statistics suggest that for 2018-19 57.2 per cent of children were doing 30 minutes or more physical activity outside school, up 4.6 percentage points on 2017-18. There had also been a 3.9 per cent drop in the total number doing under 30 minutes daily physical activity.

Asian and black children are those most likely to do less than 30 minutes activity daily.

Roy Massey who played football professionally for Rotherham United, Leyton Orient and Colchester United, went on to be assistant head coach at the Arsenal Academy, where he helped bring through big stars such as Jack Wilshere and Alex Iwobi. He said youngsters from poorer backgrounds still faced problems even after getting signed up to a professional football academy.

“I became aware of the additional problems faced by working-class youngsters to make the grade in professional football,” said Massey. “Marcus Rashford is clearly one of a number of role models but you do wonder how many prospective good players from poorer backgrounds don’t make it.

“It is a big commitment as there is a lot of travelling and some families don’t have cars or time, often due to work commitments, to transport them to and from training.”

The government claims Sport England will have invested over £190 million in physical activity for young people in 2017-2021, including the £40 million Families Fund, which encourages low-income families with children to do physical activity together. It says it is supporting grassroots football, investing £18 million a year in facilities. Its partnership with the Football Association and the Premier League brings a combined £70 million for new facilities delivered by the Football Foundation.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want every child to get an active start in life… Ofsted has made clear that PE is part of a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils. PE is the only foundation subject on the national curriculum at all 4 key stages. It is up to schools to decide what opportunities to offer to pupils to be active, including team sports.”

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