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PE fit for an enlightened age

Physical education can help to transform a can-do approach into have- a-go learning, discovers Henry Hepburn.

The new curriculum will see physical education become one of the most important departments in schools, according to a leading educational psychologist.

Alan McLean, author of The Motivated School, has challenged PE teachers to seize the opportunities of the new curriculum - and cast off the subject's damaging stereotypes once and for all.

In an interview with The TES, Mr McLean summoned up the old image of the PE department as a remote enclave where sporty children get all the attention while others face humiliation and marginalisation.

He believes a "pecking order" of subjects can still be found, particularly in secondary schools, but that PE departments have a chance to show that they are actually just as valuable as more traditionally academic subjects.

"I get the feeling PE teachers think they are undervalued because they don't think they are going to contribute to the achievement agenda," he said.

That should all change with the implementation of A Curriculum for Excellence, Mr McLean suggested. This is partly because of its emphasis on health and well-being, but also because of its broader aims of building optimism and self-belief - success in PE can be "incredibly transforming", even if a child is not doing well elsewhere in school.

"You get this positive identity which, with a bit of luck, transforms the rest of your school experience," Mr McLean said.

He also identified a can-do attitude in the new curriculum's prioritisation of critical thinking skills, co-operative learning and Assessment is for Learning, which PE is ideally placed to foster.

"You could call A Curriculum for Excellence the have-a-go curriculum," he said.

PE should be developing this "have-a-go attitude" where everyone - not just the gifted athletes - is encouraged to find something they enjoy.

The way a child's body performs and looks is central to his or her idea of self, he explained, so success in PE is a potent way of boosting image and reputation. All children should therefore be given a chance to do well in PE.

He said it was "eminently sensible" for a 15-year-old overweight and dyspraxic girl to avoid PE if she found it humiliating.

But a good example of a more progressive approach is found in one school in which tracksuit bottoms are handed out, rather than shorts. This is important for girls who are self-conscious about their bodies. He also argued that separate activities for boys and girls should be encouraged.

Mr McLean has been impressed by widespread evidence of children taking part in activities such as trampolining and cheerleading, not just more traditional Scottish sports such as football.

He said individualised programmes should be offered by PE departments as much as possible, as well as "taster" sessions in which pupils could try new sports.

There should be a "non-threatening climate" that is "co-operative as well as competitive", and "listens to the student voice", he said.

He explained how PE could contribute to "motivational resilience", an idea he has come up with which refers to qualities that can be developed to help children overcome adversity.

Mr McLean stressed that the modern teacher is a far cry from those of 30 years ago, and the changes he advocated could be widely seen in schools already.

He cited the 1969 Ken Loach film Kes, in which Brian Glover plays a narcissistic PE teacher who has no interest in pupils with little sporting ability and who engineers a football match to glorify himself - likening his exploits to Bobby Charlton as he whacks the ball past a hapless young goalkeeper.

"We're a long way away from the traditional PE teachers of 30 years ago," Mr McLean said. "There are quite challenging changes going on which the majority of PE teachers are celebrating."

Mr McLean made his observations during a national PE conference in Stirling on Wednesday.

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