THREE CHEERS for Tommy Sheridan, who has used his position as an MSP to ask a question in Parliament about the state of physical education in primary schools. Mr Sheridan has expressed serious concern at the low levels of fitness of schoolchildren and has said that PE is a "bottom priority" for primary schools. He is urging that its profile be raised as a means of improving health and social development.
His remarks echo those at a recent meeting of Scottish PE teachers who heard that more than 50 per cent of children transferring to secondary school do not have the basic skills or stamina to take part in normal PE lessons.
There has never been a golden age of primary PE and conditions in many schools have not been helpful. If PE accommodation existed it was often shared, for reasons of cost, with a dining centre whose needs came first.
Class teachers who were prepared to overcome the obstacles would meet opposition from colleagues who would remark, "I don't know how you find time for that . . . we're too busy working", as they turned to yet another set of exercises from The Essentials of English. If a PE specialist existed, the visit would be regarded as an opportunity for the class teacher to catch up with some marking.
It has taken time for shortcomings in PE to be noticed, because the lifestyle of children provided them with much activity before the video age, the two-car family and fear of child abduction. Children walked, cycled or caught buses to school, played outside for hours in evenings and holidays and made much of their own entertainment away from adults. If they fell and hurt themselves they got over it. They were fit and active, and grew in the skills of chasing, dodging, running, jumping, throwing and dribbling.
Tommy Sheridan is right to call for a substantial improvement. The evidence from a Renfrew experiment of daily PE more than 10 years ago supports the view that PE should be at the cetre of school life, not at its periphery. Regular exercise benefits children's health, social development and academic achievement, and enhances any school's ethos.
There are simple steps which can be taken by schools now. The first is to set a timetable for the hall, gym or available space, no matter what the restrictions are. The timetable must be adhered to so that PE is given dedicated time. The second is to insist that children change for gym - the use of a fixed timetable will make it easy for them to remember. The third step is to ensure that teachers are reasonably confident in what they are teaching.
At first, restrict the activity to what teachers feel able to deliver and extend their expertise and confidence steadily. It should also be agreed that children should not be deprived of PE as a punishment. The three basic steps may not bring a full PE curriculum delivered through 40-minute lessons three times a week but they should be achievable in any school and, most importantly, will give PE status.
The greatest impetus can come from visiting specialists. They are thin on the ground in many areas and have been seen as easy financial prey over the years but their regular and frequent visits are the best means of taking PE forward.
The visiting specialist can be the most effective curriculum leader. They should work alongside the teacher to an overall plan while providing a model of good practice and building confidence. The class teacher can repeat the lesson or extend it before the next specialist visit. The approach does work if PE is given status and the headteacher is prepared to show interest and encouragement and commitment. Co-ordinators and others with a wide ranging role will not be able to contribute to PE development in the way that visiting teachers should.
Well done, Mr Sheridan. When you feel that PE has begun to improve, perhaps you can do the same for primary school music.