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Fun and fitness don't belong on a treadmill

There is no need to make claims about academic performance to justify the benefits of physical activity and play, says Anne Pirrie

JUST why is so much attention currently being paid to possible links between physical activity and enhanced academic performance? The research evidence on possible causal relationships between being physically active and performing better in school is inconclusive. Even the results of influential, quasi-experimental studies such as the "Trois Rivieres" project in Quebec are open to question.

Was it the break from routine rather than the hour a day of physical activity that led to an improvement in the children's general health, their psychomotor and cognitive functions and, most important, their grades? And what about the teachers? What impact did the daily break from teaching have on their practice?

It is interesting that in the UK most studies of the relationship between sport and academic performance have been conducted by what we might call sports advocates. Len Almond and Sonia McGeorge of Loughborough University are good examples. They are right to be concerned about the inexorable decline in the amount of time allocated to physical education in schools. They are also right to point out that part of the reason for this decline is "the drive by the Government to increase the time allocated to (literacy and numeracy) in the curriculum".

The situation in Scotland is no different in terms of the amount of time devoted to PE and the curricular imperatives to which teachers, pupils and parents are exposed. As Charlie Raeburn, chairman of the Scottish Schoolsport Federation pointed out last June, "the average child receives only 50 minutes of PE a week, less than half of what is provided on the continent". This is far short of the minimum of two hours that Sportscotland has recommended by 2003.

But the fundamental question is this. Why should people like Len Almond and Sonia McGeorge feel the need to justify the inclusion of physical activity in the curriculum in this way - particularly as much of the evidence of links between sport and enhanced attainment is derived from studies conducted in very different social and educational contexts? The extensive US literature on the subject focuses largely on North American high school and college athletes, and is thus not easily generalisable to the UK.

The conclusion of another influential study reported by Lindner (1999) provides a vivid illustration of the value system in which the research was conducted: "The results . . . indicate clearly that sport and exercise participation cannot in general be considered a detriment to academic performance as is a common belief with Hong Kong parents, teachers and even schoolchildren."

Well, it certainly is a relief that sport and exercise are not exactly harmful. This only underlines the absurdity of asking whether or not they enhance academic performance. Why should they? The fact that physical activity is second nature to most five-year-olds, and potentially life enhancing for older children - and, dare I say it, fun - should be quite enough. And we shouldn't let any sudden rushes of blood to the brain and tangling neural pathways blind us to that.

There is certainly evidence from a number of studies that British school children (particularly girls) are adopting increasingly inactive lifestyles. In their study of physical activity levels among 924 10 and 11-year-olds, Shropshire and Carroll (1998) found that fewer than a third had satisfied the recommended level of physical activity for increasing cardiorespiratory fitness, HDL cholesterol and enhancing psychological health. The public health costs of such levels of inactivity, coupled with a startling rise in obesity in children, are indeed incalculable.

For educationists, there are more fundamental issues at stake. What are the social and political implications of a new emphasis on school-aged sport rather than school sport? And of the ascendancy of adult-organised sport versus self-organised play? What about the balance of the curriculum? Last, just what are we doing giving five-year-old hit-and-runners, players par excellence, a mere 50 minutes or so of PE a week?

Increasingly it appears that it is the utility of sport, rather than its intrinsic value, that matters. Until we learn to value physical movement and play in our culture and in our curricula, sport will continue to languish.

Anne Pirrie is a freelance educational consultant.

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