Do the running yourself;Opinion

John Cairney tells the Children and Education Minister a few home truths about PE

Dear Sam

REMEMBER me? We first met in the gents at Hannah Park during the Shotts Highland Games in the mid-eighties, minutes before the start of a road race, when we were doing what people do just before embarking on a 14-mile run. At the time you were a full-time neurosurgeon and embryonic Labour politician, and I was a full-time PE teacher and soon-to-be disillusioned member of the Labour Party. You've come a long way since then and I congratulate you on your success.

I'm writing to you because you are now in an ideal position to act on something that by itself may not seem important, but taken together with other developments is causing concern among many members of the teaching profession, especially those involved in teaching physical education.

In your previous role as health minister you also had a responsibility for sport, and were frequently called upon to make pronouncements on behalf of Sportscotland (formerly the Scottish Sports Council). Sometimes these impinged directly on the school curriculum, especially in primary schools. I am sure that you did it only because you were ill-advised, and that someone in the Scottish Office assigned it to your brief because they could not see any difference between sport and PE.

I have no sympathy for such confusion, but I understand why it exists. After all, many directors of education, who ought to know better, suffer from the same affliction, It may also have had something to do with presenting the Sports Council as a "can do", proactive kind of organisation, a function it has been only too willing to promote since the acquisition of so much lottery cash in recent years.

To give Sportscotland its due, some of the officials, usually the ones with a PE background, appear to acknowledge the distinction between PE and sport, but this has not prevented the kind of interference on educational matters which concerns me. In words of not more than four syllables, all matters pertaining to the "formal" curriculum should be in the remit of the Education Minister, and everything else, what you might call sports-related, should be the remit of the person in charge of sport, in this case Rhona Brankin.

For example, Sportscotland has lobbied for three weekly 40-minute periods of PE in primary school as part of the 5-14 programme. Why?

I'm not questioning its analysis, just its right to express its conclusions. In some respects, it's maybe just as well that the council is on the ball because PE professionals, like most teachers' interest groups, are so debilitated by a combination of under-representation and overwork that they are in no position to co-ordinate or promote their concerns. But it is not good enough.

The reduction in the number of school PE advisers and the incursions made by leisure and recreation departments and other sports-related organisations have been a fact of life in recent years. There is no reason, however, why the diminution of the PE lobby and the empire-building of others should be homologated by ministers in the Scottish Parliament.

My request is small, and by itself will not produce any immediate revolution in thinking or practice, but it might just clarify some important parameters. It is this: based on the not unreasonable assumption that all children in Scotland should be taught by a registered teacher in curricular time, would you please ensure when pronouncements are to be made about physical education it is you who makes them, and on anything involving after school activities, or sports development, that Rhona does the business?

If you find yourself in difficulty in deciding what's what, do me a favour - don't ask your civil servants, and above all don't ask your HMIs since they also seem to have lost the place. I'm your man.

All the best in your new post. For old times sake, I'm still running: slower yes, but still with a discernible forwards momentum, especially on downhill stretches.

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