A case of all talk and no action

16th January 2009 at 00:00
PE has got lost in a plethora of different names and too much theory, experts claim. Henry Hepburn reports

Many PE teachers cannot coach sports and struggle to hold equipment the right way, claim experts.

Speakers at an event exploring ways to improve participation rates in sport complained that initial teacher education institutions did not do enough on transferring sporting skills. "The degree qualification sits around standards set by a university, not necessarily the employability of the student," said David Maiden, of the Scottish Local Authority Network of Physical Education.

Schools had not been kept well informed about what universities were doing with aspiring PE teachers and would have to "pick up more and more of the physical side of the BEd qualification", he said.

Mr Maiden spoke at a Stirling University conference on providing young people with pathways into and through sport, run by public policy experts MacKay Hannah.

Some delegates argued that the subject should not be drawn too far into theory at the expense of its main purpose, physical exercise. "If you're not physically active in a PE lesson, you're not teaching a PE lesson," said Paul McPate, of Dundee University's Institute of Sport and Physical Exercise. There was a widespread feeling that PE had got lost in a confusing plethora of related terms, such as "active recreation" and "physical activity". "When you start to throw all the definitions in, it confuses us," he said.

"We've got to be careful about how we define PE," said retired PE teacher Billy Henderson, of West Lothian Schools Football Association. He feared that the vagueness around what constituted PE could put jobs at risk, and cited the example of a craft and design teacher with a passion for the outdoors who had taken pupils hillwalking. If the definition of PE became too broad and it was delivered without expertise, it could become an excuse to release PE teachers, he added.

PE and youth sports in Scotland were divided into too many unco-ordinated organisations, said Mr Maiden: "We don't have one voice speaking on our behalf."

Conference chair and independent MSP Margo MacDonald, a former PE teacher, suggested delegates form a lobby group.

While some felt A Curriculum for Excellence would raise the status of PE, others were concerned that the SNP Government's ditching of ring-fenced funding meant the 400 new PE teachers promised by 2008-09 by the former Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive were unlikely to transpire.

There was also concern that, despite promises that the 2012 London Olympics and 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games would leave a "legacy" in Scotland, new public-private partnership schools were being left with second-rate sporting facilities. One delegate was dismayed that there would be no swimming pool in any of East Dunbartonshire's six new PPP secondary schools.


Violence on the touchline, disrespect for officials, and coaches with a "win at all costs" attitude are turning youngsters off sport, MSPs have been told by one authority.

East Renfrewshire Council believes that "challenging social issues" are affecting participation rates in sport. Ian Pye, a quality improvement officer, said: "It is imperative we deliver positive sporting experiences within schools and in the wider community if we want to tackle high sports drop-out rates. The council is one of almost 100 bodies to submit written evidence to the Scottish Parliament's health and sport committee's "pathway into sport" inquiry, examining why young people drop out and fail to participate.

Among the other barriers to sport highlighted by Mr Pye were lack of transport and suitable facilities, parents with limited time for sport, and difficulties with volunteer recruitment and retention. "Price or the ability to pay is still a major barrier in many sports," he continued.

Dundee City Council said many schools, particularly primaries, had to compromise their sports programmes to suit "inadequate and sometimes old facilities".

Its comments were echoed by Charlie Raeburn, the recently-retired chair of the Scottish School Sport Federation, who highlighted the lack of appropriate facilities, "notably swimming, outdoor playing fields and suitable gym and games halls".

Mr Raeburn said that two separate targets - one hour of physical activity each day and 120 minutes of good-quality PE each week - had caused confusion in schools (an issue also highlighted by Highland Council). Schools were struggling to meet the 120-minute target because the Government had failed to provide additional PE teachers, he argued.

Caitriona O'Shea, chief executive of Scottish Gymnastics, called for primary teachers without a PE background to attend compulsory continuing professional development and for PE teachers to be appointed to every primary to develop "physical literacy".

Active Schools co-ordinators were praised in a number of submissions for improving school-club links. However, Scottish Rugby argued that "the single greatest barrier to universal access to sport" was sports clubs not being "part and parcel of what schools do".

The chief executive of Scottish Swimming, meanwhile, called on the Scottish Government to provide a "swimming entitlement" for all. Ashley Howard wanted every child in P3 and P4 to receive 20 sessions lasting 30 minutes in the pool. If, by the end of P4, a child had failed to reach a certain standard, the Government should provide "intensive top-up lessons" during P5, she said.

The committee will consider the submissions and identify issues it wishes to investigate further.

Emma Seith.

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