Dear prime minister (Sunak or Truss): please sort out sport in schools

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Forget Santa. If you really, really want something for Christmas this year, be it better social care or lower energy bills, the correct procedure is to write to Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Last month Lotte Wubben-Moy inspired England’s European Championship-winning football team to post an open letter to the two Conservative leadership candidates, asking for football to be made available for all schoolgirls. After the women’s gold and men’s bronze in the Commonwealth Games the England hockey teams followed up with their own wishlist.

Both letters requested a guaranteed minimum of two hours a week of PE; England Hockey has also asked for team sports to be placed at the heart of PE lessons, with improved facilities and more PE teachers for primary and secondary schools. They were not the first. A joint letter from the chief executives of the Football Association, the Lawn Tennis Association, the England and Wales Cricket Board and England’s rugby union and league chief executives also asked the next prime minister to prioritise PE.

Related: Lionesses urge next PM to ensure all girls are able to play football in schools

The lobby for more sport in schools is not new but it is seizing the moment. In July the Youth Sports Trust’s chief executive, Ali Oliver, pointed out that this year witnessed the UK’s largest recorded increase in childhood obesity, “all at a time when we have seen huge cuts to time on the curriculum for physical education and a decline in school sport”.

Unusually today’s problem is not one of funding. PE provision is on the wane despite “sport premium” grants of up to £16,000 being available to primary schools in England, with £320m promised to the scheme for the coming year. Sport England has provided £13.5m towards training secondary school teachers in the subject and about 75% of schools have received funding.

Last year the House of Lords formed a select committee to try to understand what was going wrong – why, a decade after London 2012, Britain’s young people were not the healthier, more active generation that successive governments had promised they would be. A number of experts were invited to give evidence including Lady Sue Campbell, director of women’s football at the FA. Campbell, who has repeatedly warned the government the Olympic legacy was being squandered, pulled no punches at this hearing either. Time for PE was being squeezed across the board, she said. That meant schools employed fewer PE teachers and after-school clubs suffered, too.

“It has not been a lack of investment,” she said. “It has been a lack of strategy and a lack of managed implementation.” While there had been “a lot of money” going into primary schools there had been “very little monitoring and very little accountability”. In other words, much of the money was not being used in the right way or for the purposes it was intended.

This was exactly what Campbell predicted would happen in 2010, when Michael Gove slashed funding for the school sports partnerships developed during her leadership of the Youth Sports Trust. But why listen to a woman with a winning track record? At secondary schools operating within those schemes, the number of pupils playing sport for two hours or more each week increased from 20% to 90%.

When the government ended the schemes it offered headteachers the “freedom to organise sport themselves” in lieu of actual support. Mo Farah’s former PE teacher, Alan Watkinson, was another to predict the outcome in an essay for the Smith Institute in 2013. Prioritising “individual endeavour and enterprise”, he wrote, “adds to an already overburdened workload for school leaders”. The vital task of “addressing the obesity timebomb” was being left entirely to chance.

Woodhill Primary School pupils play hockey as they celebrate the opening of its new multi-use sports facility in October 2014. The Greenwhich school, the first in London to be completed, received £30,000 of National Lottery funding from Sport England’s Primary Spaces fund to transform its playground.

And so the wheel turns. In February 2013 Ofsted called for a national school sport strategy that built on school sports partnerships; now a Lords committee is proposing a national plan for sport and recreation that includes similar recommendations for school strategy those who know their stuff have been proposing for a decade.

Peter Keen, the head of UK Sport who oversaw Team GB’s goldrush at London 2012, sees the loss of the school partnerships scheme as 10 years of missed opportunity. “Its design features and philosophy put school sport at the heart of our thinking in terms of sport strategy and child development generally,” he says. “However we do it, we’ve got to get back to that dialogue and make the case again that physical literacy is essential for development.”

Nick Pink, chief executive of England Hockey, agrees. “It’s been a real challenge for state schools in the last 10 years,” he says. “The lack of strategy at the top-line level has set us back – that’s why we’re seeing this challenge to the event legacy system, because it has to be backed up by good strategy.

“UK Sport talk about winning well, the integrity of sport, but it also needs to be backed up by a PE in schools plan that provides the fundamental development skills children and young people need so they can continue a lifelong participation in sport.”

Research into “physical literacy” has demonstrated its vital importance to a child’s development and future wellbeing; it can be argued it is as important as numeracy and the ability to read. But poor experiences in PE cause many to reject physical activity entirely, and the rift can take a lifetime to repair. The drop‑off rate for sport among teenagers remains high and campaigns to encourage people back – such as This Girl Can – are remedial measures for a problem that need not exist in the first place.

Which is why one of the punchiest proposals in the committee’s report is to make sport a core subject in the curriculum. “It’s bizarre it isn’t already,” says Keen. “That’s not to deny many people’s experiences of PE at school wasn’t adequate and there are many, many things that should be changed about it.”

Whoever becomes the next prime minister, this is the next sporting battle to be faced and resolved.