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Sport can bring out the bullies

The government wants to encourage competitive PE, but this may have unintended consequences, says Ian Rivers

The government wants to encourage competitive PE, but this may have unintended consequences, says Ian Rivers

Early on during the London 2012 Olympics, the prime minister announced that he wanted the Games to lead to a "revival of competitive sport in primary schools".

It is common for politicians to want to promote competitive school sport over more inclusive forms of PE. Indeed, Gordon Brown made a similar speech at the Beijing Olympics.

However, David Cameron's plans appear to be more than rhetoric; a new compulsory PE curriculum is due to be published this autumn, designed to ensure that schools make pupils compete against each other on the sports field.

It was left to Sally Bercow, wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, to point out the potential downside. "Compulsory competitive sport will put a lot of kids off school even more," she remarked on Twitter. "I predict a rise in lost PE kit amp; sick notes."

Will PE become a dreaded lesson once more, where an inability to catch or kick a ball draws ridicule from peers? Will children be stigmatised for not being "sporty" and will team captains groan "Oh, Sir" or "Oh, Miss" when they are forced to choose the solitary figure left standing on the sidelines?

Of course, many teachers go out of their way to make PE lessons different from those of the past, when it was more of an ordeal than a learning experience. However, the fact remains that the ability to play sport is highly valued in society - arguably now more than ever - and the value we attach to it is understood and reflected in the behaviour of young people at school.

In one study I conducted on bullying in 14 secondaries in the North of England, I found that levels of hostility among 185 young people who self-identified as "bullies" were highest when directed towards those who were either very good or very poor at sports. In fact, hostility towards those playing sport was higher than that directed at peers who were good or poor at schoolwork, those with special educational needs and those labelled "lesbian" or "gay".

Using the same study data, and working with colleagues from Brunel University, York St John University and the University of London's Institute of Education, we found that 6.5 per cent of 2,002 pupils reported having been victims of sport-related bullying at school in the past term. Those who were bullied because they were not good at sports showed elevated levels of psychological distress. We also found high levels of distress among those who witnessed pupils being bullied because of poor performance, suggesting that we must give very serious consideration to how we present sport and PE in our schools - winning is not the be all and end all.

Previous studies had shown that some pupils who are bullied at school experience motor coordination problems. Forcing these so-called "clumsy" students to participate in more competitive sport, instead of more inclusive physical activities, is therefore likely to backfire.

Schools will face a challenge introducing more competitive sport in a sensitive way. Indeed, making schools provide more sport is already tricky as they face increasing cuts and fewer qualified teachers, not to mention fewer sports fields.

We have seen cuts to the allocation of initial teacher education places for PE at secondary level, the abolition of school sports partnerships that provided much-needed coaching and the absence of suitably qualified staff at primary-school level. If a new curriculum is to work, we will need significant investment in school sports and in the training of PE teachers - both primary and secondary.

A new national curriculum will set out a series of objectives against which schools will be assessed. However, it will be left to teachers to enact and to navigate the tricky path from inclusion to competition, and to ensure that this new "ethos" for sport is embraced by all young people.

The language teachers use to instil competition and the meaning of success will be important. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of applauding those who come first, second or third without acknowledging the hard work and dedication of those who do not make it on to the rostrum.

How a school celebrates its sporting achievements and the weight we place behind them will also have an impact on those who do not excel on the track or field. Perhaps, as Bercow suggests, we may find ourselves alienating many of those for whom the recent Olympics and Paralympics were a source of encouragement.

Ian Rivers is professor of human development within the School of Sport and Education at Brunel University and a visiting professor in the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education at Anglia Ruskin University.

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