Nine steps to fitness

PE staff are not knuckle dragging Neanderthals who need to be tackled by a former rugby player, says Alastair Kidd

HE former rugby player John Beattie came into my life at the beginning of the month and told me how to do my job. As chairman of the Government's latest media friendly "task force", he suggested that the fitness of Scottish children was not all it could be. At the risk of sounding facetious - really? Apparently the number one "target" is to be "the emphasis on certificated PE". I would suggest that the number one target should be out of touch PE departments and ill-informed media pundits.

Let's examine the facts:

* Children are less fit than elsewhere? Check.

* Children have too many other interests? Check.

* Children are less active than in days of yore? Check.

* PE does not address the fitness issue? Not always!

Contrary to popular opinion, PE teachers are not knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. As professionals interested in the physical and mental development of children, my department recognised some time ago that the physical fitness of pupils could be better. We have developed a set of courses that has addressed this, maintained a balance with games and skill development, allowed a degree of choice and maintained a very successful certificated PE programme. (I have no doubt that certificated PE has been an extremely positive step forward - but that is a whole different argument.) To do this, we decided not to employ bandwagon jumping, a narrow focus or soundbite politics. There is no secret in what we have developed, just a broad agreement that we should afford the fitness of our charges the same "status" as their ability to learn skills. Simple steps can be taken.

First, more discrete fitness blocks. These can vary from two to six weeks, and are for all pupils in their core PE time.

Second, although we do some work on areas such as strength and power, we concentrate on cardio-respiratory endurance.

Third, we challenge the pupils - fitness is not just for those who are fit. One of our major successes is a third-year boy who is heavier than the perfect runner - he learnt early on that he could run for 12 minutes at a steady slow pace and has done so ever since, getting slightly faster every time. We have different courses and different expectations for different pupils.

Fourth, measure levels, give them a target. Let them achieve success, measure their levels again, show them this improvement - it's not a new idea, but it works.

Fifth, we try to make it fun - we play about with the beep test (no one says 20-metre progressive shuttle run test), start at 60, do it as a three-person relay, do it over 15 metres, do it every second 10 beeps. Do a 12-minute run, do it to music, do it in a figure of eight, a double figure of eight, a sine wave, a zigzag.

Sixth, give the pupils choice - accept that not all pupils enjoy hockey, rugby and other traditional team games. As they get older we give them a choice - aerobics is very popular with senior girls, but both girls and boys have chosen extra running.

Seventh, we have tried, wherever possible, to increase the fitness component of every lesson, whether in the warm up or in the course of the lesson.

Eighth, our sports day reflects our practice, including fun runs, outdoor beep tests, handicap sprints and tug of war, all voluntary and all very well subscribed.

Finally, be a role model - it is pointless pontificating about the benefits of fitness training and then saying "off you go then". Show the pupils you mean what you say.

There is other ample evidence to show that our approach is working, some of it anecdotal, some of it hard fact:

* Pupils enjoy it - they don't groan when we announce a wee fitness session.

* Pupils actively choose a fitness option.

* There is an improvement in fitness levels (we have a cross-country course of two-thirds of a mile: one class's average time showed an improvement of 12 per cent.

* The average score in the beep test for S1 pupils increased in a year from 41 to 52.

ur challenge is also to make sure that councils and headteachers show their support for this approach, and allow the time and resources necessary. Of course, some will argue that it is a choice between extracurricular sport or more fitness, certificated PE or more fitness, certificated PE or extra-curricular sport. I would say have a go; it can be done.

I wrote in these pages last year that, if I had the power to do so, I would reduce the number of Standard grades to six and spend an extra eight periods a week on fitness work, again concentrating on the cardio-respiratory side of things. What conceit allows us, as educationists, to force children to pack their week with subjects of "value" that often will have no long-term effect on their lives? At the same time we are saying: "Forget about your physical health, we find it unimportant."

When my hypothetical average pupil is 40 or 50, which will they value more - a long forgotten collection of information, or well functioning heart and lungs?

Another "task force" is perfect for repeating what we have heard in the past, for providing employment and for grabbing headlines. What we really need is a team of practitioners going round schools showing just what is possible. It is not that I disagree with John Beattie, quite the opposite; it is just that I do not need him to tell me how to do my job, nor to tell me something I worked out for myself a long time ago.

Remember that the ancient Greeks developed a curriculum that was 50 per cent academic and 50 per cent physical. If it was good enough for them, it should be good enough for us.

Alastair Kidd is principal teacher of physical education at Earlston High.

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