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SPORT England and the UK Government have confirmed that children will be given access to sport activity as a priority on their return to school south of the border after research showed a drop in activity throughout lockdown.

The Sport England Active Lives Children and Young People Survey provided strong evidence that active  children are happier, more resilient and more trusting of others, and there’s a strong association between young people being active and better mental health.  This builds on the wealth of evidence that suggests being active has positive benefits on students’ behaviour, attendance and academic results at school.

Last year, 46.8% (3.3 million) of children in England were meeting Chief Medical Officer guidelines of an average of 60 minutes of activity per day across a week, but during lockdown, research commissioned by Sport England showed that these figures dropped to less than a fifth (19%) of children meeting the recommended guidelines. A third of children said the absence of school during the height of the pandemic had a major impact on their ability to be active.

Sport England chief executive Tim Hollingsworth said: “Large numbers of children tell us that not being at school has negatively impacted on their ability to get active. We want children to develop a healthy relationship with sport and physical activity and build habits that will benefit them throughout their lives.

“We know that both parents and teachers are under pressure in so many areas right now, but our message would be that their role is absolutely vital in supporting our children to be more active and in turn healthier and more resilient. Whether that’s encouraging children to walk or cycle to school safely, making break times and lessons active or delivering PE sessions that children want and enjoy, it all counts.”

The research also showed that teenage girls, Black, Asian and poorer children are relying more than others on ‘at school’ provision to be physically active in their everyday lives, underlining the vitally important role that school settings play in supporting children to be active, from informal play right through to formal team sport.

Scottish schools returned three weeks ago and has witnessed in a mixed bag of activity across the country. The OSS webinar featuring CEO of School Sport New Zealand Garry Carnachan in June was watched by nearly 2,000 people, mostly headteachers and PE teachers keen to learn from New Zealand’s resumption that month which put sport at the heart of supporting pupils’ physical and mental recovery from lockdown. At the start of thew webinar 95% of attendees stated that they had no confidence in returning sport as a result of very little guidance. It improved during the webinar and with further guidance in July, and a range of creative solutions have been found to enable PE to return almost as normal and schools to welcome back community sport, with hand-washing, sanitisation of equipment and track-and-trace systems, some using innovative Apps, becoming commonplace.

However, in many parts of Scotland PE activity is still limited and extra-curricular sport remains a complete ‘no-go’ area, with children and parents in many areas given no indication yet when extra-curricular sport activity may resume if at all, in 2020. This is despite the same outdoor school facilities having been used by school-children in local club sport in many areas since mid-July, with a wide range of successful safety conditions.

A group of schoolchildren playing netball inside a sports hall.

(Picture courtesy of Sport England).

Sport England has invested directly into school sport, along with the UK Government, in recognition of the important role schools play in supporting children to be more active and healthier,  including through the School Sport and Activity Action Plan and PE and Sport Premium.   Some £13.5 million has gone into a secondary teacher training programme, offering professional development opportunities to staff in over 2,000 schools across England to help put pupil’s needs and enjoyment at the heart of PE and school sport, while £26m has been invested into Satellite Clubs to engage children and young people in sport outside the school day and over £16m is supporting the School Games.  The Scottish Government supports sportscotland with funding for Active Schools coordinators,  who provide a variety of support to schools, however, many, including those only now returning from furlough, are still not yet able to arrange sport outside school hours.

UK Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston is clear that sport is viewed as crucial to the recovery of children’s health in England. He commented:  “Schools and teachers are working incredibly hard to reopen safely and we will support them in helping children get fit and healthy as they return.  Playing sport and being active is vital for young people’s physical and mental health, whilst also improving behaviour and concentration. Sport is a crucial part of school life, and now more so than ever.”