A healthy mind needs a healthy body

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
Because it's January, acres of newsprint and hours of daytime television have been devoted to promoting the dieting plans of the late Dr Atkins and his competitors in their multimillion pound industry. What a pity that similar funds are not available for combating the real crisis in personal weight and exercise.

Headlines such as "Fat epidemic leaves one in 10 six-year-olds obese" or "Half of all children do not get enough exercise to strengthen the heart and lungs" or "One in five 12-year-olds is overweight" are stark reminders of the health time bomb now ticking for our present school population.

The facts are shocking and are giving rise, slowly, to campaigns for healthy eating and increased exercise. The First Minister has made his most recent contribution by announcing the appointment of 600 "activity co-ordinators" to develop better physical fitness and combat childhood obesity. But the Government is just tinkering at the edges of the problem.

The co-ordinators, committees and "tsars" will have little effect unless they work directly with children in their primary schools.

At present, there are serious barriers to effective primary PE. Class teachers acknowledge its value and are keen to develop their skills but they are uncomfortable with safety. In an increasingly litigious society, they see themselves on the wrong end of compensation claims if little Darren so much as bangs his knee or twists an ankle. Robust exercise can even induce mass hysteria in some classes where children are unused to their hearts beating faster.

But the major destroyer of primary PE is the shared dining hall and gym.

This cost-cutting feature of many primary schools built since the 1950s is a lasting memorial to the second-class status of primary education in Scotland and primary PE in particular. Even the dinners have higher priority. The less healthy option requires the setting of tables at 11 o'clock, confining PE to the margins of the day and there is still the chance of slipping on a patch of dampness or discarded mince.

Don't expect changing facilities either. Most children have to make do with the classroom or toilet while the teacher frantically attempts to supervise her separate class groups. Nor will colleagues in some country schools forgive me if I forget their half-mile trudge, in all weathers, for PE in a draughty village hall.

A survey from Edinburgh University claims that 90 per cent of Scottish primary schools fail to provide pupils with at least two hours of PE per week. Some don't manage 40 minutes. The figures may be damning, but they are not a surprise.

One expert says the Scottish Executive needs a more radical approach. So how about "a PE teacher in each primary school" as the slogan - a target for the politicians and a fair repayment for the many less worthy targets they have imposed on schools.

Primary teachers don't let a day pass without maths and language. The establishment of a permanent PE post in each school, coupled with frequent - perhaps even daily - timetabled PE, will change school culture so that the development of a healthy body takes its rightful place alongside the healthy mind as a right for all children. Daily PE, and a dedicated PE teacher, is not pie in the sky although it will require serious financial investment and long-term planning.

Lengthening the pupil day by another 45 minutes may be necessary also, but that's not a problem. Reduced and flexible class contact will soon be normal for primary teachers thanks to McCrone, so the way is clear to extend the pupil day without encountering union difficulties about their members' hours.

"A PE teacher in each primary school" is the radical way forward. The culture change is our best chance of producing healthy children in the future. In 2020 might we anticipate the headline: "Scots children healthiest in Europe"?

What a change.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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