Exercise is great, but only for other people

9th December 2005 at 00:00
I would find any conceivable way of unwinding after a hard day's work preferable to spending time in the gym, but physical activity has interested me over the past few months.

I may have been hanging on to an old-fashioned concept of preserving children's self-esteem at all costs when I insisted on reducing the element of personal competition on sports days by arranging potted sports and awarding team points. My stance was due to long experience that the less-academically inclined of our pupils do not generally, in Forrest Gump style, excel in non-academic areas. I was never happy to watch the smart-arses romp home with the usual also-rans trailing at the rear.

However, parents did not see it my way and eventually I realised it required far less effort on everyone's part to draw up a programme of flat races and to run with it, so to speak.

I cringed as the very overweight boys and girls, bathed in sweat, lumbered along the track and collapsed somewhere near the finish line. I felt the same discomfort during Health Activities Week, as children from nursery to Primary 7 skipped, danced, twirled and played every conceivable ball game as part of a carefully orchestrated programme of physical activity. Some were obviously unaccustomed to exertion lasting more than a few minutes, judging from their colour, breathlessness and flab spilling out over their waistbands. On both of these occasions I realised my feelings were misplaced because it was obvious the kids, on whose part I worried and fretted, cared not a jot about their size, stamina or status and were simply having a great time.

Then, during our school inspection by HMIe I was told our allocated time for PE, although within the guidelines for expressive arts, was insufficient. I was asked, "What is the advantage of being good at maths at age 32 if you drop dead from a heart attack?"

Clearly, it was not advisable at that precise moment to begin to explore with HM inspectors the reasons why our major focus in recent years has been on attainment in maths and language rather than physical prowess.

Suffice to say that I decided to increase the time for PE in the run-up to our follow-through inspection. Two thorny problems have to be tackled by schools when implementing the advice to provide two hours of PE each week for all pupils, but I was relieved to find that, in our case, they proved to be less prickly than I had expected.

The first is one of finding time in the over-cluttered curriculum. I advised teachers to plan increased PE activities within health education and personal and social development, bringing us bang up to date with the thinking behind A Curriculum for Excellence. Freedom for teachers to think creatively about the purposes of physical activity and how it links to citizenship will ensure that our school is moving towards being both ambitious and excellent.

The more pressing problem is availability of space. We decided to use outdoor areas in the three months of the year when we might get decent weather and to make use of all available indoor space, in negotiation with other users of the games hall, including the extremely scary OAP Bowlers Group. A broad definition of what constitutes PE has seen better uptake of school health resources and the introduction of activities, such as yoga, requiring little space.

I enthusiastically cheer sporting endeavour from the sidelines but my personal view remains unchanged. We are given a finite number of breaths in our lifetime and we can either use them up by bagging Munroes or conserve them in pursuit of other low-expiration activities.

I reckon that no harm can come to you from lying on the sofa with a glass of wine at hand, unless it is just out of your reach and you roll off and break your wrist trying to get hold of it. I'm with Joan Rivers when she says,"The first time I see a jogger smiling I'll consider it."

Joan Fenton is headteacher of Dyce Primary in AberdeenIf you have any comments, email scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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