Does the decline of PE really matter?;Another Voice;Opinion

4th June 1999 at 01:00
MY FIRST doubts about the value of curricular physical education came more than 50 years ago with my first experience of it, at secondary school. There, I found that although I adored street-play and competitive sport, PE left me cold.

Undeterred, I moved on to PE college, where I was instructed in barren Ling gymnastics by a lecturer whose exercise routines had remained unchanged for 30 years. I was taught games by others whose "coaching" usually went little further than dividing our class into opposing teams.

Subsequently, PE, setting its sails to the winds of child-centred education, became less rigid, producing mutations like educational gymnastics. The subject struggled to prove its educational content, to distance itself from "physical training".

These were wasted years, ones in which the work of brilliant practising physical educationists, like Buckinghamshire's Alan Launder or Glasgow's John Anderson was ignored. They realised that the true test of the subject would always lie in how much it was enjoyed by those lacking physical talent, and that it was not a science but a practical art.

Between 1960 and 1990, PE lost a steady 10 per cent in school time per decade. In 1984, it suffered another blow with the decline of after-school sport, following the teachers' dispute. More recently, national curriculum pressures have brought it close to anorexia, to a mere hour of activity per week, and even less for fifth and sixth formers.

Does it really matter? This question may sound odd, coming as it does from someone who has taken part in competitive sport for more than half a century, who coaches youngsters in athletics, and who has written a plethora of instructional books for teachers and coaches.

But what I had dimly sensed as a boy was that there was a world of difference between freely-chosen sport and curricular PE.

The former is undertaken for pleasure, is usually pursued in good facilities, often with coaching, and frequently possesses a social content.

This is light years away from the compulsory pursuit of a range of sports in large classes, in modest facilities, conducted by a generalist physical educationist. It exists in a different world from gymnasia virtually unchanged since the l9th century with their forbidding wall-bars, beams and vaulting horses.

The conventional wisdom is that, without PE experience, fewer children will make their way into adult sport and exercise. Alas, statistics tell a different story. In the 1950s, at the peak of curricular PE volume, the numbers in adult sport were low but, as PE has declined, adult sports participation has risen massively, driven by agencies as diverse as the London Marathon and Jane Fonda.

Another myth that must be put to rest is that success in international sport is somehow dependent on curricular PE. Again, when we look back at the 1950s, Britain was at the bottom of the league in international sport. As curricular PE has declined, so our international stock has risen.

This is not to suggest cause and effect, only that success at international level is dependent on such factors as coaching, sports science and specialist facilities rather than the volume of PE. And the proponents of such arguments appear to ignore the efforts made by leading physical educationists over recent years to distance themselves from sport.

In the decades immediately following World War II, the main experience of competitive sport and exercise for children lay in the school. Since then, our sports ecology has been transformed, driven by proactive governing bodies, local authority leisure departments and private fitness clubs. And behind the 90s' sport and exercise boom have been parents who instinctively realised that the values of sport were those they wished their children to absorb.

For outside school, the quality and quantity of provision has, over the past two decades, been transformed in social content, coaching and facilities. That is why there are now two million people members of commercial fitness clubs. In their lush facilities, no one cares much about their members' athletic ability; their job is to make exercise fun.

The same goes for sports clubs like Richmond Rugby Club, where every Sunday 800 boys and girls turn up for mini-rugby. Only in independent schools, where PE budgets are 10 times those of the state sector, is there any parity with such community and private provision.

If things are to change, if secondary PE is not to fade into history, then its main aim must be that all pupils should leave school having had an enjoyable sports experience, one which propels them towards an active adult life. That is PE's product: not indefinable and unmeasurable educational processes, but young people dedicated to active lifestyles.

To this end, PE hours should increase and, to ensure a quality experience, activities must be reduced in number. This will mean a longer school day and PE teachers specialising in a smaller range of sports. And above every gymnasium door should be the words of William Wordsworth: "Learning and pleasure go hand-in-hand, but the leader is pleasure."

Tom McNab coached the England rugby team and wrote the sport novel Flanagan's Run

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