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Study casts doubt on value of games

Secondary school pupils spend two-thirds of games lessons either sitting or standing rather than exercising, according to a new study that raises serious questions about the health benefits of traditional PE teaching.

Researchers who videotaped 40 summer games lessons conducted by 20 PE teachers in south-west England discovered that their Years 7, 8 and 9 pupils were "very active" for less than a fifth of lessons. They also found that the teachers did not attempt to instruct pupils about health-related fitness even though this is a national curriculum requirement.

Throwing events appeared to offer the smallest health benefits as pupils taking part in them were "very active" for less than 3 per cent of the lesson. The equivalent figures for jumping events and track were also low (10.9 and 15.7 respectively) whereas tennis (27.4), strikingfielding games (36.8) and swimming (40) involved more vigorous activity. Even in swimming lessons, however, pupils spent 56 per cent of their time either sitting or standing.

The findings of Iain Kerr, Somerset county officer for health-related and physical education, and two Alabama academics, Matthew Curtner-Smith and Weiyun Chen, will disappoint the many physical educators who have in recent years been urging the promotion of health-related fitness in school PE lessons.

These lobbyists accept that PE teachers must also concentrate on other important objectives such as motor-skill acquisition, personal, social and cognitive development, and leisure education. But they have been hoping that schools would integrate health-related fitness work in practical games lessons.

"The evidence provided by this study suggests that, despite the numerous articles in PE journals, medical and political statements, and in-service and pre-service courses on the subject, secondary school PE remains largely unaffected by the health-related fitness movement," the researchers say. "Although the 20 teachers were clearly hardworking and dedicated professionals they provided limited opportunities to participate in physical activity associated with health benefits."

Iain Kerr and his colleagues, who report their findings in the latest edition of Educational Studies, discovered that teachers allocated 60 per cent of lesson time for skill practice and game play, 20 per cent for lesson management, and a further 20 per cent for providing knowledge on the skills, strategies and rules of the activities being taught.

Although the teachers spent no time promoting or demonstrating fitness during the summer games lessons, the researchers speculate that they may do more to promote health-related fitness at other times of the year.

They also suggest that spring and winter PE lessons may involve more physical exercise, but add that further research is needed to test this theory.

* Only one previous study has involved direct observation of activity levels in PE lessons. This 1992 study by Sleap and Warburton noted the low activity levels of primary pupils taking part in gymnastics, invasion games, track and field, dance and chasing games.

Educational Studies, Volume 21, Number 1, is available from Carfax Publishing Company, PO Box 25, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX14 3UE.

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