John Greene: State fails in duty to get nation exercised
Among a number of critical issues which have been highlighted over the last few weeks in the debate over the proposal to ban alcohol sponsorship in sport, is the extent to which the State has managed to avoid accepting any real responsibility for the health and fitness of its population.
We hear the right things being said, and maybe this can create a false impression that all is well.
Like when our Taoiseach says, as he did a few weeks ago, that we are one of the healthiest nations in the world, and that we can feel proud of this accomplishment. Except we are anything but one of the healthiest nations in the world.
When we worry if our youngest kids are getting enough exercise we can look at the Department of Education's website and read the excellent curriculum on physical education and feel happy that they are in good hands at primary school. Except study after study shows that our primary schools are allocating less time for physical education than any of the 34 countries in the OECD.
When we hear praise for the network of local sports partnerships around the country promoting participation at the grassroots through mass events and innovative pilot schemes, we can sit back and think all is well below the surface. Except over the last number of years the government says it has had no choice but to continuously cut their budgets to the point where staff have been let go and great projects and initiatives have been abandoned.
As the Department of Health points out, physical activity benefits every aspect of your health, and this is not to just view health in terms of being free from illness, but "as a positive concept that covers your physical, mental and social well-being".
When you cut money available to sport, it lessens sport's ability to promote and facilitate participation levels which has a knock-on effect on public health. When you devote less time in primary schools to providing physical education to children than almost every other developed country in the world, then that too has a knock-on effect on public health. When you do not have any semblance of co-operation or planning across the central government departments on promoting physical activity in people – young and old – then that also has a knock-on effect on public health.
We are pumping billions of euros a year into dealing with the problems associated primarily with obesity when a fraction of that amount of money could make a huge difference. Indeed, without even spending a cent right now the provision of physical exercise in schools could be tackled head-on. A little bit of will, some incentivisation for a largely disenfranchised teaching population and some political and institutional leadership would go a long way for starters.
When you inflict cuts on schools and on sports bodies and local sports partnerships, and when you allow rampant waste of millions of euros in the health service, then be ready for the consequences for decades to come. Every decision taken which directly and negatively impacts on sport or general physical activity has a far greater consequence than might be first imagined.
Just over 30 years ago, then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave schools permission to sell off any land they deemed surplus to requirements. It is estimated that over the following decade, as cutbacks in education bit deeper and deeper, that somewhere in the region of 5,000 playing fields were sold off by schools to raise money. Furthermore, as the pay and conditions of teachers were also cut through the decade, their willingness to become involved in after-school activity fell away.
There can be no doubt that there was a link between these two developments and the subsequent finding that the number of pupils aged under 14 getting less than two hours of physical education a week almost doubled (from 38 per cent to 71 per cent) by 1990. Additionally, child obesity rates increased dramatically in Britain between 1990 and 2000.
In Ireland at the moment, our obesity rates are already at chronic proportions, with almost a quarter of Irish adults now said to be obese, while just over one third of our primary school children are getting the minimum recommended amount of physical education, or exercise, each week which is defined as 60 minutes per day. Between primary school and second-level school, there is no country worse in Europe at ensuring that its children get the required amount of exercise every week. Instead, the State has for the most part sat back and allowed a volunteer culture to do its job instead, and now it is undermining even that effort with some callous cuts.
Why does this country allow itself to have the worst record in the OECD when it comes to having formal exercise as part of school life? Politicians love to bandy about expert reports when it suits their purposes. Alex White (left) and Róisín Shortall did just that recently when speaking out in favour of the alcohol sponsorship ban and yet there is a huge volume of research, national and international, which clearly demonstrates the damaging effects of normalising a sedentary lifestyle for young children has.
Meantime, only Israel in the OECD spends more time at primary school level teaching religion than Ireland. Formal religious instruction in this country at that level is two-and-a-half times higher than that given to physical education. How hard can it be to strike a better balance?
Deferral only adds to saga
A decision on whether or not to do away with prestigious under 16 football competitions like the Gerry Reilly tournament and the Fr Manning Cup, due to be taken at yesterday's Central Council meeting, has been deferred by a week.
We highlighted last week that these competitions are no longer thought to comply with GAA policy, despite the fact that all involved with them, and others like the Ted Webb Cup, place huge importance on them. The idea that they are not 'policy' would be funny if the attempt to get rid of them was not so serious.
There has been a concerted and well-backed campaign, particularly by Longford and Meath, to retain the competitions. The GAA is unhappy they lobbied so hard for support, apparently forgetting its own intense lobbying campaigns of the recent past. You couldn't make it up.