Skip to main content

An exercise in inequality

If survival of the fittest is the rule, then pupils at independent schools have a head start. David Henderson reports on the results of the most comprehensive survey on physical education in Scotland for 10 years

The most authoritative survey of physical education and exercise in Scotland for more than 10 years highlights yawning gaps in facilities and a growing divide in quality provision between independent and state secondaries.

It also underlines the scale of inaction on extra-curricular activities, despite years of government-driven programmes to counter the acknowledged nosedive in participation levels from the mid-1980s onwards.

For the first time, hard figures based on returns from more than two-thirds of schools show that fewer than one-in-five state pupils takes part in out-of-hours sport and exercise in contrast to two out of three in independent schools. In a third of state schools, less than 10 per cent take part. The national figure, including both sectors, is 23 per cent of Scottish children.

The survey, carried out last summer by Rob Littlefield, former head of physical education and games at Glasgow Academy, reveals some success for school sport co-ordinators, now based in almost half the schools. Without their efforts, it seems numbers would be substantially lower.

The study of 291 schools was conducted with help from Brian Green and Stuart Forsyth at the Scottish School of Sport Studies at Strathclyde University and examines in detail the scope and extent of PE provision and health-related exercise.

Mr Littlefield has been startled by some of the findings, not least by the appalling facilities across the country. More than one-in-three schools has no access to a swimming pool, against one in four in England.

Over 60 per cent have no access to tennis courts, 46 per cent no access to an athletics throwing area, 31 per cent no access to an athletics track and, perhaps most surprising, 14 per cent - or 42 schools in the survey - have no access to any grass-playing surface.

One west of Scotland school typifies the poor state of repair of many facilities. It has a new synthetic grass pitch that has been out of action for seven months due to flooding. Another secondary is only able to use the village hall and local field at the shinty club.

Principal PE teachers complain of the lack of long-term investment, the sale of school fields, budget cuts in hiring facilities, too many classes being timetabled to use the same facility, and the loss of facilities in Glasgow's school rebuilding programme.

Mr Littlefield comments: "Sadly, a large number of Scottish schoolchildren have been excluded from many sports due to lack of facilities. It would be hard not to come to the same conclusion as the National Association of Head Teachers, that sports facilities are so inadequate that youngsters' health is being put at risk through lack of exercise."

He adds: "With 34.7 per cent of secondary schools not having access to a swimming pool, how many Scottish children leave school unable to swim properly?

"Swimming is a health-related activity that can be undertaken at many levels by individuals, groups and families of all ages. If all schoolchildren learn to swim with confidence, then they are more likely to continue this skill into later life."

Many sports governing bodies, such as the Scottish Rugby Union, are investing heavily in introducing their sports to children but 48 per cent of schools have no access to a grass rugby pitch. Some 84 per cent have no cricket wickets and 12 per cent no summer facilities.

Mr Littlefield says little has changed over the past decade and yet the media wonders why our international sportsmen and women fail to achieve.

His study shows access to indoor facilities has improved - up from 62 per cent to 80 per cent - but access to football pitches has declined from 82 per cent to 61 per cent.

The first Scottish survey to indicate the extent of out-of-hours sport shows 23 per cent taking part regularly. "Some schools will be proud of this achievement while others may feel that after all the effort to arrange such a wide variety of activities, the response is disappointing," the ex-PE head says.

Only 18 per cent of pupils in local authority schools are often out competing. But one independent school reported 92 per cent involvement.

"Is it too politically incorrect," Mr Littlefield says, "to ask why there should be such a major difference between these two types of school, and what can be done to reduce this difference?" Only 13 per cent of schools paid extra, gave allowances or time off in lieu to staff taking sports outside school hours. But weekend activities are on the increase, returning to levels 15 years ago. Most activities take place after school, closely followed by lunchtimes. Some 61 per cent felt they offered a wide range of extra-curricular physical activities.

The contrast between independent schools, where staff are paid around 5 per cent extra, is marked. Principal teachers in state schools spend on average three-and-a-half hours a week on extra-curricular with some wide variations. Twenty-three per cent spend less than an hour a week while a similar percentage spend more than five hours a week.

In independents they spend an average seven-and-a-half hours on the playing fields and in the gyms. Ten times more staff from other subjects help out. "Money is only part of the equation, it is also about the ethos and priorities of the school," Mr Littlefield believes.

School management and parents need to support sport if it is to develop. Co-ordinators alone are unlikely to succeed without it.

"The whole school needs to be involved in promoting extra-curricular activities and staff must feel they are valued for all this extra work," he adds.

Mr Littlefield, however, points to the strains on teachers. "Over the last decade, increased pressures of examination subjects, lack of facilities and recognition and other factors have led to a deterioration in extra-curricular provision.

"Teachers have also had to balance the demands of extra-curricular work with all the changes forced onto the curriculum."

Virtually all schools, except nine independents, offer certificated PE courses.

"Another important question is whether too much effort has gone into establishing certificated PE to the detriment of whole-school core PE and extra-curricular activities," Mr Littlefield says.

"With 42.3 per cent of schools offering no core PE to fifth and sixth-year pupils and only 23 per cent of Scottish children taking part in extra-curricular activities, have schools sacrificed core PE and extra-curricular activities to join the exam culture?" His survey reveals wide variations in time allocated. Some S1S2 pupils receive only 50 minutes a week while another school in the same city allocated 440 minutes. Nine schools offer no core PE in S3 and S4 and 123 schools (42.3 per cent) offer no core PE or games to S5 and S6 pupils.

Standard grade PE time has been cut by 25 per cent in three years to an average of 150 minutes, while Higher grade has been cut to 268 minutes. Again, the independents leap ahead. Pupils generally receive around an hour more timetabled core PE a week.

"The pressures for improved exam results is no different than for any other school in Scotland. They do, however, appear to value physical education and will devote more time to the subject," Mr Littlefield points out.

Most of the 1,360 PEteachers in the 291 schools are women, although many of them (226) are part-timers. Ten years ago, the majority were men. The average secondary now has 4.7 staff, 3.6 full-time and one part-time. Thirty-one per cent of staff from other departments helped out in PE or extra-curricular, against 12 per cent 10 years ago.

But only 16 per cent of schools used coaches or sports development officers regularly. The average age of a PE principal is 45 and 73 per cent are men.

Mr Littlefield believes the changes in staff composition raise key questions, such as the effect on participation levels of boys and girls. "It would be naive to expect these changes not to have some effect on children in PE," he says.

Teachers test the fitness of their pupils in over 75 per cent of schools, with most testing carried out in S3. The favourite is the multi-stage fitness test (bleep test).

"Teachers appear to choose tests that can most easily be administered and involve several children at once."

But, strangely, the majority (53 per cent) never report the pupil's fitness levels and scores to parents. Mr Littlefield argues: "Fitness testing in schools can be an effective way of educating and challenging children to improve their well-being.

"It must, however, include good preparation and motivation, a reporting system to the parents and remedial help."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you