How can London 2012 deliver a mass sport participation legacy for young people?

Professor Kathleen ArmourGovernments of all persuasions tend to view participation in sport as a 'Good Thing' for society, particularly for children and young people, although they tend to base their views on different ideological foundations.

The previous Labour Government invested heavily in physical education and school sport in an attempt to encourage more young people to engage – and remain engaged – in lifelong physical activity. To achieve this, they funded a national strategy that formed local schools into School Sport Partnerships. The strategy was ambitious, including aims to improve the standard of teaching in primary schools, and increase the amount and variety of sport and physical activity opportunities for pupils in secondary schools. Evaluation research suggests that the strategy was effective in some respects, with notable successes in reversing a steady decline in curriculum time devoted to PE in state schools, and increasing the variety of curriculum activities for children of all ages and abilities. It was intended that this strategy would form the foundation for a London 2012 sport participation legacy.

The current Coalition Government views the purpose of physical education and school sport rather differently. For this government, one of the key benefits of physical education is to offer children and young people opportunities to engage in competitive sport, particularly team games. As a result of their engagement, so this argument goes, more young people will become enthusiastic, lifelong sports participants, and they will learn lessons about striving for success that can transfer into other aspects of their lives. It is claimed that such lessons are of particular value for those young people who are disaffected or disengaged from society. From this perspective, the strategy introduced by the previous government was criticised for placing too much emphasis on encouraging breadth in the curriculum at the expense of offering traditional forms of competitive sport.

Hugh Robertson, Minister of Sport and the Olympics, 2010 "…delivering a mass participation legacy for sport from London 2012 is one of my three top priorities. I want to see a marked, and sustained, cultural shift toward greater participation in sport"

Throughout history, sport has been viewed as something of a panacea for a plethora of social issues and concerns. It has been claimed, for example, that engagement in sport can improve the health of the nation, tackle youth crime, raise children’s academic achievement, and teach valuable moral lessons for life. It may be surprising to learn, therefore, that the evidence base supporting such claims is both sparse and equivocal. There is some research evidence to suggest that sport participation has the potential to offer wider personal and social benefits. On the other hand, there is a wealth of evidence demonstrating that many young people are turned off all forms of physical activity by inappropriate physical education or youth sport experiences. This is a particular issue for the least physically active young people in society: adolescent girls, low ability pupils and some ethnic minority groups. What we might conclude from this is that attempts to batch-process young people through one ideological PE/sport strategy or another are likely to disappoint.

So, how might governments deliver a mass youth sport participation legacy? Some clues can be found in evidence from research we undertook with over 7000 disengaged or disaffected young people who participated in two sport/physical activity programmes. The data showed that there were positive personal and social outcomes for many of the young participants and these were sustained beyond the end of the programmes. The successes could be attributed to six key pedagogical design features: matching individual young people with activities that were right for them; locating interventions outside of the ‘normal’ school context; offering young people choice and opportunities to set targets and review personal progress; developing positive relationships with adults; providing opportunities for young people to work with and especially for others; and making structured follow-on pathways available. In other words, the sport activity itself was only one part of a much more complex pedagogical picture.

The answer to the question posed in this article, therefore, is that London 2012, just like previous Olympics, will probably fail to deliver a sustained mass sport participation legacy. Indeed, the evidence suggests that if we want to encourage more young people to engage in sport, and to be physically active for life, we should stop relying on glamorous mega events, expensive target-driven strategies and nostalgic versions of PE. Young people’s lives have changed dramatically in the last 50 years so we need, instead, to invest in supporting practising teachers and coaches to develop new, complex sport and exercise pedagogies that can better meet the diverse needs of contemporary youth.