In which I think about PE at school and try not to succumb to the trauma

So, the Olympics is all over bar the politics, and it’s time to get back to normal telly. The nation is sharing a communal “just back from holidays” feeling where our two week refusal to tear ourselves away from the tv and do laundry or buy sensible food is coming back to haunt us. Mundanity is back with force.

The Olympics haven’t just provided a distraction from normality for us little people though. Our lovely politicians have also had a nice break from boring stuff like the economy and how we used to have a health service. All of a sudden all a politician wanting a picture in the papers needs to do is pop on a Team GB baseball cap and make a pronouncement on how bad we are at teaching PE in school. We are into a period of political PE inflation.

David Cameron kicked off be announcing that what we needed was a more competitive ethos in school sport, a cultural change, no less.  It was quickly pointed out that the current government had actually cut the previous requirement that children do at least two hours of PE per week, but Cameron was quick with his response. The requirement had been cut in recognition of the fact that some schools were not teaching Proper Sport. Some children were doing things like Indian Dance, on which Cameron commented, “Now, I’ve got nothing against Indian dancing classes but that’s not really sport.” This from the Prime Minister of a country that won two golds and a bronze in Horsey Ballet. Now I’m not criticizing the Horsey Ballet – so far as I’m concerned any day when a horsey pirouettes to songs from the Lion King on my telly is a good day – however, we probably can’t afford to be too draconian about the question of what counts as Proper Sport.

Since then we’ve had a kind of sport in schools inflation. Boris Johnson, I think,  managed to win the prize for the most pro-PE politician, when he announced that two hours per week was insufficient and children should be doing two hours of school sport per day. It’s not instantly clear where the rest of the business of education fits into this timetable, but then we’re all going to be athletes and shot putters don’t need to be able to count or read, do they? Of course, that was Boris, so it’s not entirely clear that two hours per day is what he meant. It’s perfectly possible that the data being transmitted from the Mother Ship simply became corrupted and mangled the distinction between hours, days and weeks.

All of the above somehow misses the point. Actually there are two points and it misses both of them. Firstly, we’ve done quite well at these Olympics. This presents an opportunity to get more people enthused about sport. It doesn’t obviously suggest that everything we’re doing at present in the teaching of sport is wrong. Secondly, it fails to ask what the point of PE in school is. Is it to breed new generations of elite athletes or is it to encourage an exercise habit and promote health? There’s no reason that it can’t be both, but if it’s only about elite competitive sport, that screws over the fat kids, the slow kids, the unco-ordinated kids who get turned off exercise for life and grow up into fatter slower less co-ordinated adults. I went to schools with a strong emphasis on competitive sport, and I was terrible at it. I was a podgy child. I’m not a natural catcher or thrower or jumper or runner, so I went through PE in school being not good enough. My favourite PE lessons were those where the teacher abandoned any pretense of involving the whole group and let the fat girls “field deep” (a schooldays euphemism for “sit on the grass and make daisy chains.”) I was probably twenty-seven before I worked up the courage to even enter a gym or go to an exercise class – and imagine my delight when I discovered that plenty of forms of exercise are not competitive. No-one loses. Why was I not told about this earlier?

So, if you’re a politician who likes to pop on your Team GB polo shirt and wander around the Olympic Park like you actually helped in some way (you know who you are), probably the best bet would be to actually talk to some elite athletes about what they need to reproduce these levels of success, and then, maybe, get on with doing that. It’ll probably be very boring and to do with funding and coaching programmes and not very much to do with primary school PE at all. Then, you can leave the primary schools to concentrate on getting children excited about sport and exercise and, if they enjoy it and it gets kids moving, why not a bit of  Indian Dance?

Author: Alison May

Writer. Creative writing teacher. Freelance trainer in the voluntary sector. Anything to avoid getting a real job... Aiming to have one of the most eclectic blogs around, because being interested in just one thing suggests a serious breakdown in curiousity.

5 thoughts on “In which I think about PE at school and try not to succumb to the trauma”

  1. Nice post Alison! I don’t see why schools can’t do both competitive sport (games) as well PE to include Indian Dance. My daughter’s school does both. The trouble is, that some schools don’t actually teach competitive sport well. They play games without the rules at Primary level often, so anyone with competitive spirit becomes disillusioned. Also, an idea for the “fat” kids and those with less aptitude and coordination sportwise, is that they are placed in a different team, esp at Secondary Level. The problem with A and B teams is that it automatically excludes the rest who might love the games too. Discrimination against the rest of the alphabet as well as those kids.


  2. I used to love playing sport at school but used to hate learning sport at school. There was always that wasted 50 minutes of boring “this is a ball hold it like this” before the 10 minute game crammed in at the end. I think the correct techniques etc. should be taught by experts to our future Olympiads after school and schools just focus on the fun bit of running around, falling over and whacking stuff.

    Also there should be more choice. All I wanted to do was run. Distance, run, sprint or rugby run. Cricket, basket ball, javelin. No thanks. I was bored and just ‘fielded-deep’. It’s sad when kids who actually want to do sport get turned off because they’re being forced to play something they’re not interested in.


  3. You’re quite right about the purpose of school sport: if we want to produce elite athletes then we have to focus on competitive sports. But if you want to get kids enjoying exercise, then you’re screwing over everyone who isn’t, well, destined to become an elite athlete.

    The problem gets worse when you factor in that it’s the elite athletes who inspire kids to get moving in the first place (and not just kids. Most adults I know are inspired by the Games). Catch-22.

    I know I’m not the only one to be so badly-coordinated that when I throw something, the only reasonably safe place to be is behind me (and even then it’s 50/50). I was still made to do ball sports at school where I was shouted at for ‘letting the team down’.

    Imagine if English and Maths were taught the way PE is. Making all kids work together, whether they’re brilliant at it or hopeless, pulling back the smart ones and crushing the spirits of the ones who need help. Making the dyslexic kid read aloud, then ridiculing him when he can’t do it. Getting the kid who can’t add 2+2 together to do quadratic equations in front of the class and then calling her stupid when she can’t. It’s the sort of thing that inspires a life-long loathing of a subject.

    If only they’d let the uncoordinated kids go for a walk, or do a dance class, or even yoga. The added benefit is it’s all really cheap, or even free. And you don’t get rained on.

    A bit like Indian dance, I should imagine.


    1. Ah yes – the “letting the team down” moment. Have definite flashbacks to that at school. I think that’s probably what put me off games more than anything else – the feeling that I was letting people down. *Shudders*


  4. Yes, following on from above comments – we were streamed for games in 5th year secondary school (Y11 now) and it was the only time I didn’t actively hate PE. We were split into the euphamistically named ‘keen ones’ and ‘not so keen ones’. I don’t know why the need for tact – we were all streamed on ability for academic subjects and were all well aware we were cr*p at sport! Anyway being in the ‘not so keen’ ones was great – we got to choose our sports and the aim of the exercise seemed to be having a go and enjoying it. The games teachers were a revelation – relaxed and personable when they knew none of us were potential sports people. I don’t know why we couldn’t be streamed for games throughout secondary school. Other subjects eg science manage to provide a rigorous challenging curriculum for their potential engineers and research scientists while giving other students a broad intro and some scientific ‘life skills’. I’m sure the same sort of approach could be applied to sport.


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