PE and School Sport are the bedrock foundation to a lifelong sport and physical activity habit – are we going far enough to ensure that every child is active for life?

Mark Lawrie – Chief Executive


As a former primary school teacher, PE Coordinator and first-generation TOP Sport trainer (a historical reference that some may need to Google!) I will always advocate for greater levels of resources and support for growing and developing PE and school sport. School should be the place where every child, regardless of their background and personal circumstances, has the best possible start to an active and healthy life. This week the Government published the latest iteration of the School Sport and activity plan (SSAP), setting out its ambition for PE and School sport and the resources to support its objectives.

In a post-pandemic environment, where poor mental and physical health are two of the greatest challenges facing our education and health systems, how does the plan address the ever-evolving needs of children and young people in 2023?

Positively, in a world where many of us call for closer collaboration between government departments, the SSAP is sponsored by the Department for Education, with input and support from both the Department of Health and Social Care and DCMS. The benefits of sport and physical activity cut across multiple areas of government, and to see this joined-up response is extremely heartening.

At a time when schools are under significant pressure to deliver achievement and attainment targets across the whole curriculum, the encouragement to include a minimum of 2 hours of PE time during the school day, every week, with equal access for boys and girls, reflects the vital role of PE in the overall wellbeing of children. An active child is a better learner – the evidence is compelling.

The equal access aspect of this ambition is vital. National data from the Active Lives survey for children and young people continues to show an activity gap between boys and girls. StreetGames’ experience from our award-winning Us Girls programme, is that getting the activity offer right for girls and young women from low-income families requires a clear understanding of what motivates girls to take part and how you can remove the barriers that prevent them. Fun, Fitness and Friends, the strapline for Us Girls, points towards the key motivators for those girls who might be considered ‘semi-sporty’, those for whom sport is not always their first choice. With this in mind, does the plan go far enough to consider how to address the sport and activity needs of all girls? What more can be done to engage those who perhaps do not identify as ‘sporty’ or see themselves as a future Lioness?

The ability to swim is about far more than access to sport; it is a life skill and can, at times, be a life-saving skill. The SSAP outlines how the DfE will work with Swim England and other partners to ensure that all primary-age children can swim before they head to secondary school. Access to swimming is one area where the disparities between more affluent and less affluent children are most stark. The poorest families spend no more than £3.65 per week on sport and active leisure. This is not per child but for the whole family. In most leisure facilities, this would not pay for a single swim. It is for this reason that StreetGames has developed Fit, Fed and Swim, working with Swim England and Birmingham City Leisure Trust. Fit, Fed and Swim is a legacy programme from Birmingham 2022 and provides access to breakfast and regular swimming lessons for those children whose families cannot afford to take them regularly.  The SSAP sets out that schools will be able to use their Primary PE Premium to support disadvantaged pupils to access swimming. Fit, Fed and Swim offers an opportunity to creatively blend this with addressing the wider needs of these children.

So where could the ambition in the SSAP have gone even further? It is really positive that the plan includes references to both the DfE Opening School Facilities (OSF) and Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) programmes. Both are important pillars in ensuring access to extra-curricular and holiday time sport and physical activity. StreetGames are delighted to be part of the consortium with the Active Partnerships, Youth Sport Trust and ukactive supporting the Opening School Facilities programme. Our offer within the programme is about ensuring that the activity offer takes into account the voice of young people. In Year 2 of OSF we will provide training that helps schools engage their young people both in sharing what works for them and in becoming part of the delivery of sport and activity outside school through youth social action.

The missing link in this ‘out of hours’ section of the SSAP is the vital role of community organisations in providing opportunities for children and young people to be active outside the school day. Competitive extra-curricular sport in school works for some young people and should always be available, but what about those for whom their motivation or ability to access is different? OSF offers a prime opportunity for schools to engage the locally trusted organisations in their community that provide the kind of informal sport and physical activity that StreetGames knows works for many children and young people from low-income backgrounds. The Sutton Trust have regularly reported on the barriers to access for disadvantaged pupils to extra-curricular activities. Their 2021 research brief on extracurricular inequality includes the stark statistic that top earners are almost four times more likely than bottom earners to have paid for out of school enrichment classes.  More than 65% of young people who attend Doorstep Sport sessions do no other sport or physical activity outside the school curriculum.

These inequalities deepen further during holiday times. With the current cost of living crisis, low-income families simply cannot afford to pay for children to regularly access sporting opportunities during holiday periods. The DfE Holiday Activities and Food programme has provided a lifeline to families with children eligible for Free School Meals and other vulnerable pupils. The expectation that all HAF provisions must include the Chief Medical Officer’s recommendation of 60 minutes of sport or physical activity every day means that children most at risk of inactive holidays can find safe, appropriate places to keep moving. StreetGames founded the HAF Active group of national sport sector organisations to encourage a collective response to the opportunity offered by HAF. As members of the wider HAF Alliance, we advocate for the importance of the sport and physical activity offer within holiday provision and for the vital role of trusted community organisations in delivering HAF provision. Our learning from being involved in the pilots for HAF in Newcastle through to our coordination of the largest HAF programme in the country in Birmingham, Bring It On Brum, has shown us how HAF can serve as a catalyst to ensure that disadvantaged children and young people have access to a sport and physical activity offer that works for them both with and beyond the holidays.

Returning to my opening comments, any resources and support for PE, School Sport and activity are to be welcomed, particularly when there are so many other priorities for government spending. The challenge now is to go beyond what is outlined in the SSAP and ensure that we include those children and young people who may be at risk of missing out and who also stand to gain the most from the benefits of access to sport and physical activity.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Stay in touch with our work, unlock your fundraising potential and discover how we change lives!

"*" indicates required fields

Yes, I would like to subscribe to the StreetGames newsletter*