Team GB - £125m, Booktrust - £6m: Education and literacy are funding sport

Liz Thomson
Opinion - Books 16 August 2012

While libraries close and Booktrust struggles to do its work, the Prime Minister is pledging £125m a year to "elite sports", all in the pursuit of national glory in 2016

As reality begins to creep back into daily life, as the red, white and blue comes down (thank God: attachment to the flag and the whole nation state nonsense is repellent, whatever the circumstance) and the euphoria of so many Olympic moments fades, it's time for sober reflection on the headline-grabbing commitments made by the Prime Minister.

"Elite sport" and "Team GB" are to be funded to the tune of £125m a year until the Rio Games in four years' time, though (rather unsportingly) that funding will not extend to sports in which Britain failed to shine earlier this month. Still, perhaps that's just as well since it's calculated that each medal in London cost around £4.5m. Meanwhile, money for the School Sports Partnerships has been slashed from £162m to £65m, and runs out altogether next year; playing fields are being sold off. A shameless bid for national glory on the one hand, deprivation on the other - and all against a background of slash and burn to health and education and public services, not least libraries. Perhaps we will end up a nation of illiterate sportsmen and women!

So how are things for Booktrust? In 2011/12, it suffered a 42% cut in funding from £13m to £7.5m. In 2012/13, an additional cut of 20% left it with an operating budget of £6m across the book gifting programmes. So, a total cut of 54%, and what's left is guaranteed only until April 2013 - at a time when families are struggling to survive and "luxuries" such as books are likely to be cut. The £6m funding from the Department for Education is invested in a public/private partnership which leverages £22m of support from children's publishers, so allowing Booktrust to weave together its other partners, which include libraries, children's centres, early years settings, primary and secondary schools.

As a Booktrust spokesperson told BookBrunch: "The DfE funding helps Booktrust to support the reading journey of all children and to provide extra targeted care for those with special needs or experiencing social disadvantage. Without ongoing funding from government, we face the possibility of having to reduce or cut these reading programmes.

"We are urgently seeking a package that will at least sustain the current grant of £6m per year. The grant fuels the PPP which delivers all the universal reading programmes: Bookstart; Booktime (4-5 year-olds - also sponsored by Pearson); free books for libraries in every secondary school. It also funds our targeted programmes in Children's Centres, socially deprived primary schools and socially deprived secondary schools, as well as all of our SEN provision."

So, Cameron is happy to wrap himself in the flag, to ride on the hard-fought success of the hundreds of athletes who won a medal or perhaps just delivered a personal best, announcing a £500m spend on "elite sport" and "Team GB" - many of whom will go on to amass fortunes from lucrative sponsorship deals - while Booktrust staggers on, doing important work on a shoestring and without the assurance that there'll be any government money at all beyond next April.

Then there's music, a bedfellow of sport at DCMS and no less important to a child's intellectual and emotional development. Indeed, The Importance of Music: A National Plan for Music Education, signed off by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, and Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, carries a prefatory quote from Aristotle: "Music has a power of forming the character and should be introduced into the education of the young".

In their Foreword, Gove and Vaizey note that "while music touches the lives of all young people, the disadvantaged can benefit most". Music education "must not become the preserve of those children whose families can afford to pay for music tuition". Thus, DfE funding will be at "significant levels during difficult economic times: £77m/£65m/ £60m will be available in the three years from April 2012." Sums many times larger than Booktrust's paltry funding, but not a great deal given the costs involved in school instrument provision and so on.

I should declare my hand: I don't have a sport gene, but my total intolerance of it, and of the nation's obsession with it (with dawn-to-dusk Olympic coverage, why wasn't the News a sport-free zone - what shit got swept under that big Olympic carpet?) owes to the way it was taught in school. To enforced activity designed, it seemed, to humiliate rather than encourage. As Olympian Jessica Ennis pointed out, sport should be about doing something you enjoy - and keeping fit while you do it. Not necessarily gym or team games, competitive and sometimes brutal, but individidual sports - possibly including dance which, properly taught, is perfectly valid. Music, however, was a different matter, and occupied most of my teenage years and life at uni. I had neither the talent nor the desire to perform (though I earned a decent student living pretending to be Joan Baez) but the skills I acquired have been far more useful than would have been (say) my ability to perform a double somersault or throw a javelin. Music teaches you to listen (not merely to hear) and an attention to detail without which the playing, composing or analysing of it would be impossible.

Yet music and books combined get significantly less than our "elite" sportsmen and women will get in a year. Meanwhile, sports-loving kids whose parents don't have the wherewithal must suffer to support those elite, while children living in deprived communities with little or no access to facilities and nowhere to direct their energy and aggression will be further marginalised. And we wonder why they riot! The balance between the so-called elite and the everyday is way out of kilter, and those talented, medal-winning sportsmen and women whom we are expensively funding must give back: as part of a contract with the government, Team GB members must be required to earn their keep, visiting schools, spotting and mentoring tomorrow's talent, giving masterclasses. There is surely time in their schedules for more than the suggested five days - and it would be good for them. A win-win situation you might say.

Sport can be good, especially in this age of junk food and computer games. But a lack of ability at it doesn't blight career chances. Lack of literacy skills blights not only career prospects but life itself. If Booktrust's imperilled gifting schemes go, if schools have no money for books, if libraries are decimated - what then for children from across this supposedly United Kingdom?

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