"Let's not underestimate our industry's contribution to sport and the health of the nation, where it matters most, in school"
In 2012, the nation, and the Government, will have the glory of hosting the Olympic Games but is it, or will it be, of any benefit to the elevation of our industry in providing quality sports surfaces for all? Particularly, focusing on the benefits for sport in schools; especially where it matters in giving youngsters their first taste of competitive sport.
Many years ago when I, and the editor of this magazine, took our first steps to becoming professionals, we had the opportunity of joining a superb four-year horticultural/grounds apprentice training scheme founded and implemented by local government.
This proved hugely rewarding, for many on that course are now highly successful figures in horticulture/grounds/greens.
It was also during this time that it was common placed for schools to have the advantage of an on-site groundsman, providing the benefit of his skills directly on a day-to-day basis to the PE Department.
This gave schools the ability to offer the full range of sports, i.e. soccer, rugby, cricket, athletics, rounders, etc. And, let's not underestimate the impact on a child's education, fitness and health made by a groundsman.
However, wrongly in my opinion, also at this time government chose to dismantle local authority controls of horticulture/grounds services. Almost overnight, the hands-on daily expertise given to PE Departments of individual schools was decimated.
The replacement for this was probably well meant, but a man-in-a-van with limited equipment and time visiting each site (perhaps once a week at best) was not really a step forward for our industry nor for schools to develop.
This decision by Government has had a snowball effect of huge proportion for the industry and schools. The resulting poor surface conditions gave nothing to PE Departments and students alike. Less and less use, and a reduction in competitive sports, has meant the unthinkable. Heads of schools selling of sports fields!!
I accept that clubs of all sporting backgrounds have played a major part in filling the void for gifted children, and also taking into account the highest of standards set by the private schools sector in the provision of sports, but this is not always an easy or viable option for a great many parents. After all, state schooling is compulsory and free.
There are thousands of primary and secondary schools in the UK serving hundreds of thousands of students.
Is it not possible to reverse the decline and give back to the nation quality sports surfaces maintained by a well-tracked professional groundsman? Our industry could lead the way back; just as Jamie Oliver has done for school meals.
Let's give our youngsters the very best opportunity to succeed. Again, let's not underestimate our industry's contribution to sport and the health of the nation, where it matters most, in school.
So, let's look forward; how can our industry best use this one-off opportunity?
There are many schemes for training being put forward by various bodies - all with admirable intention of promoting a full range of skills across all sectors. But, are we selling these to the already converted?
The top-end of professional sport has showcased our profession superbly well over recent years, as we have all admired the surfaces produced at Test and county cricket, Premier, Championship and beyond. For both football and rugby, the only major blip has been Wembley! But, let's leave that behind us, as I sense lessons have been learned.
There appears great concern that there will be a shortage of new recruits at the grassroots entry level of the industry. Would it not be possible to open up the career prospect for plugging this gap with groundsmen on the school staff, as previously mentioned? There are thousands of potential posts waiting. What more incentive does the Government need?
There is also the very serious situation of child obesity. The proportion of children classed as obese or overweight has rocketed since the turn of the century. A study has found that these children will go on to become obese adults. The potential health problem is immense. Britain has one of the highest rates of overweight children in Europe; with 1 in 3 adults predicted to be obese by 2012. Just in time for the Olympics!
At present, 9,000 adults die an early death each year due to obesity-related illness and, in 2007, almost 23% of all children in the UK aged 4-5 were overweight and, by the time they reach 11 years of age, it has risen to 32%. These are their formative years. Re-direct costs covered by obesity to the NHS per year (in the same period 2007 was a staggering £14.2 billion) and, if nothing is done to address this, it will double by 2050.
I am full of respect for the profound impact made by Jamie Oliver in improving the quality of food available in schools, but this is only half the battle. How do we help the children burn off the calories?
Could it be the future if a headmaster looked at his staffing and thought, I need heads of geography, music, history, maths, PE, GROUNDSMAN, art, etc.? Let's hope so, or we will have missed the best chance for change.
It must be a concerted effort by all in our industry to push/cajole (even force) the Government to reverse years of neglect.