Pitch battle

Whenever an English sports team is defeated, the tabloids clamour for the manager's head and gentlemen of a certain age write grumbling letters to the broadsheet editors. They talk of a lack of technique and skill, and somewhere along the line schools get the blame.

Wilf Paish, who has a lifetime's experience in athletics, including coaching Olympic champions, does not like what he sees in school sport. Pupils, he says, are emerging with a lack of basic technique. Where athletics is concerned, and particularly with field sports, he is concerned that failure to teach the basics could have lifelong consequences. "If we don't teach skills early on, young people are never going to learn them properly," he says.

He does not blame physical education teachers but directs his criticism at colleges, universities and, ultimately, the Government. "We are no longer training teachers to teach skills. I ask young people: are you taught how to play cricket? Have you been taught how to throw a javelin? The answer is often 'no'.

"We no longer train our teachers in the practicalities. We spend a lot of time teaching physiology and biomechanics. We teach them how a child grows and develops in strength, but we don't get down and say: 'This is how you play a backhand in tennis, this is how you serve, this is how you pass a football'. Kwik cricket, short tennis, mini-rugby - all we have in teaching are quick systems. They encourage young people to play, and that's what PE teachers do now - they supervise play. But children should learn the fundamentals, like where they should put their feet."

Wilf Paish's priority is not to produce a string of world beaters; rather he would like to see more adults continue to play the sports they learned as children. Fewer boys, he says, are out there enjoying kicking a ball around. "If our children are not introduced to skills in an innovative and motivational way, they are not going to carry on with their sport."

Professor Margaret Talbot, head of sport at Leeds Metropolitan University,formerly the famed Carnegie PE College, welcomes Wilf Paish's concerns. She feels that PE is being forced into a corner. "There is no elasticity for us," she says. "Curriculum time in initial teacher training has been cut by about half over the past decade, and even if a university or college wanted to put in more time for practical work, there would still be a problem. There just isn't enough money."

However, all is not doom and gloom. St Mary's RC Comprehensive at Menston,near Guiseley, Leeds, has a formidable reputation for teaching athletics and other sports. An application for sports college status is nearing completion. Excellence abounds, and the smallest PE departments in the smallest schools could learn from the school.

David Geldart, St Mary's head of PE, believes a secondary school's PE department should not function in isolation but should act as a catalyst. Links must be fostered with primary schools, where PE teaching can be a hit and miss affair, and with sport's governing bodies to ensure continuing development.

Skills, although important, should not be taught in isolation, says Mr Geldart. They need to go hand in hand with an understanding of where they fit into a game, otherwise children will get bored.

At St Mary's, Year 9 girls are honing their netball skills under the direction of their teacher,Alison Perrings.

"I have some very good players, " says Ms Perrings, "but we do the simple things all the time. They need to refine their skills: sprinting from the correct foot; hips, shoulders and eyes in line to where they are sprinting; pushing off from the correct foot; using their arms. In netball,when you sprint to the right you should take your first step with the left foot, and vice versa."

On the football field some boys, divided into small groups, are also practising skills - they are working on trapping and passing. Their teacher, Simon Wade, asks why, at one particular moment, he told them to keep their heads up.

"Less pressure on us," says Joshua Hunter, one of the boys, without hesitation. "We had the space and the time to work out what to do next. "

David Geldart has a flourishing department with five committed teachers. He can also call on many other teachers at the school to supervise games, which he knows is increasingly rare.

According to Wilf Paish, many non-PE teachers who used to be active in their school's sporting programme are now often too busy with paperwork to be able to give up their Saturday mornings to supervise sports activities. The loss of such volunteers is something that many believe the Government is going to have to address if the downward spiral of sports teaching is to be arrested.

Coaching for Teachers, a national programme, offers access to governing body courses for primary and secondary PE and non-PE teachers.
For more information, write to: National Coaching Foundation, 114 Cardigan Road, Headingley, Leeds LS6 3BJ. Tel: 0113 274 4802

The National Junior Sports programme offers help in school and will advise on pathways and exit routes.
For more information, write to: English Sports Council, 16 Upper Woburn Place, London WC1H 0QP.Tel: 0171 273 1500

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