A Sporting Enigma

By Morgan Anthony

State school pupils in the United Kingdom receive an average of just under 2 hours of sporting activity per week, a third of the time their private school counterparts receive. This disparity becomes even more conspicuous when one considers the government’s heightened priority of improving the country’s collective mental – and physical – health. Research has shown a correlation between increased sporting activity and reduced stress, improved sleep and heightened self-esteem. Given that 20% of teenagers aged between 11 and 16 suffer a probable mental health disorder, sport remains a great untapped opportunity to resolve this crisis and counteract the pressures arising from an unrelenting academic environment of constant testing. 

But beyond the significant consequences of a dearth of sport on the performance of school students, the inadequate provision of sport imperils the future productivity of the UK workforce, the saliency of the government finances and undermines Sport England’s work aimed at boosting activity among adults. Playing sport at a young age performs a significant role in engendering commitment and dedication to remaining active in later life. The never-ending early morning drives, the games in the throbbing rain and the constancy of niggling injuries can make even the most enthusiastic amateur sportsperson envious of those tucked comfortably away in bed. Indeed, given the pressures on adults’ time, it is imperative that a passion for sport is fomented at a young age, in order to keep the population active and healthy. 

A decline in sporting activity among adults could have a serious deleterious effect on the mental wellbeing of the country, followed by a considerable knock-on effect to the efficiency of the UK economy. The UK’s productivity is already startlingly low. Between 2008 and 2017, the UK had the fourth lowest productivity growth among all OECD countries, while the Bank of England predicts growth in per capita output will only continue to fall. Hence, a fall in productivity is set to be devastating for the UK economy.

In a time when working days are prolonged and demanding, sport and exercise offers a counterbalance which can uphold the productivity of the UK workforce. Increased sporting activity is associated with higher general life satisfaction which, in turn, contributes to greater productivity at work. Being refreshed and motivated leads to workers completing more tasks every hour, investing greater care to the quality of their work, enduring lowered fatigue during the day and is associated with working more hours to complete work tasks. Exercise significantly reduces stress, a major cause of mental health problems in the workplace, but also a pivotal hindrance to the workforce efficiently completing tasks and finding satisfaction in their work. Diminishing the strain stress wrecks upon the economy ought to be an aim of any government policy to improve productivity. Playing sport, particularly at a young age, furthers the ability of people to recognise their own skills and therefore concentrate on the areas they need to improve in. A more self-aware workforce, equipped with the aptitude and temperament to develop their skillset can only be a more productive workforce. These changes have a significant impact on individuals lives. The potential for people to further their careers, upskill and receive higher pay, and reap the benefits of improved well-being are substantial. The unexploited productivity benefits derived from a more motivated workforce are a considerable goal government ought to target to satisfy their objectives of long-term economic growth and increasing the economic well-being of the population.

Beyond, the mental health benefits of increased physical activity, the country’s physical health plays a key role in the functionality and financial solidity of the NHS. Potentially preventable health issues such as some cardiovascular diseases, cancers and type 2 diabetes are amongst the leading causes of death in the UK and are some of the heaviest burdens on the NHS. Despite improvements in activity amongst the population, preventable health conditions still kill more people per year than Covid 19 has in the last twelve months. Preventable health conditions cost the NHS approximately £11 billion a year and Public Health England believes that unless this is limited, it could render the NHS unaffordable. These damming facts illuminate the urgency of this situation. Furthermore, they demonstrate the necessity of the government to expend a great deal of resources on this negative externality. As citizens don’t pay for the NHS directly or proportionately, the costs associated with healthcare are placed on a third party, the government, and eventually the rest of the tax paying public who subsidise those who utilise the NHS more. This is the external cost associated with healthcare in the UK. Hence, tackling this burgeoning predicament of preventable health conditions (and its corresponding cost on the health service) is necessary to prevent placing the already greatly vulnerable public finances under demands they may not be able to withstand. Keeping the populace healthy and active reduces the chances of these conditions arising and thus further incumbering the NHS. Boris Johnson’s plan to tackle obesity is a decent attempt to try to confront the growth in preventable health conditions by incentivising people to be more active in adulthood and to eat more healthily. But no plan of this sort is complete without targeting the playing of sport at a young age. It is, after all, considerably easier to form a healthy and active population by inculcating a love and commitment to sport and physical exercise at a young age than try to drive behavioural changes in adults.

But why is physical activity among younger people so low and how can the government boost sport in school and prevent these harmful consequences to the NHS and UK productivity from materialising? There is a laundry list of reasons why sporting participation is low at school. The inevitable funding discrepancies between the state and independent sector will remain a difficulty to overcome. And when school funding, reputation and Ofsted reports are increasingly based on taking in more students and academic outcomes alone, it is inescapable that sports funding and facilities will be squeezed to further this. However, a lack of prioritisation and ingenuity in the state sector are also significant contributors to this crisis. 

Limited funding prioritised for sport results in many state schools selling off invaluable playing fields and consequently there are a great number of schools with a shortage of high quality facilities onsite or nearby for their students to exploit. A lack of specialist and premium coaching coupled with substantially worse facilities in many schools further contributes to the measly uptake in sport. Long travel times, unfamiliar locations, old and tatty equipment, overworked staff and unsatisfactory support characterise many of the experiences of sport at school for students. This not only leads to sport being less appealing at school (and the negative effects on wellbeing poor quality PE can have) but also inhibits students from developing the requisite passion and love for sport which is required for them to remain active adults who are highly productive and not a burden on the NHS.

If the government was interested in improving productivity and reducing preventable health conditions through sport, it couldn’t do much better than champion the approach of Campion School. Whilst the former chief inspector of schools lambasted headteachers for viewing physical education as an ‘optional extra’, Campion School became one of the most highly acclaimed sporting schools in the country. Rugby is compulsory for all students on a Saturday morning (a move which mirrors the experiences of many independent schools) and this unorthodox thinking is a requirement for most other state schools in order to drastically transform the essence of sport in the United Kingdom.

An unproductive workforce due to the omnipresence of stress and low motivation, and a growing burden of preventable health conditions reflect two of the key threats to the economic security of the United Kingdom. If the government isn’t to prioritise the greater uptake of sport at state schools as a central solution by focusing on innovative ideas and greater commitments of time and energy from headteachers, it risks creating a lost generation of healthy and productive citizens and condemning the economy to an even more tumultuous era of low growth. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

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