How sport can put you on the winning side

1st August 2014 at 01:00
Regardless of a child's physical ability, PE teaches them teamwork, resilience, ethics and more - and it's time for schools to take note

For those of us who did much of our growing up in the 1980s, sports lessons were uncomfortably close to the stereotypes of stage and screen: Brian Glover's highly strung PE teacher in Kes; the competitive intensity of the jock in The Breakfast Club; the no-nonsense tactics of Grange Hill's deputy headteacher "Bullet" Baxter.

Plenty of students loathed sport - and the cold showers in ill-maintained facilities that went with it - and invested more effort in avoiding lessons than in taking part.

This was also the decade in which PE became politicised. Non-competitive sport might initially have been a reaction to the less-than-delightful practices found on many playing fields but it became for some an ideology. As such, responses to it were split. Meanwhile, the sale of playing fields generated anger on both sides of the debate.

Even now, when the quality and choice of what is offered has improved immeasurably, too often a discussion about PE and sport in schools is polarised. Is sport about competition and excellence or about participation? Is it about the development of an individual's skills or playing as a team? Physicality and exertion or tactical awareness and outwitting opponents? Health or the science of sport? Is it part of school life for its own sake - there to develop skills such as resilience and confidence - or is it about supporting school improvement and wider educational outcomes?

Yet as with many debates in education, it is easy to see that each of these dichotomies is false.

Those of us who love sport may find it easy to see the intrinsic value of good-quality provision. We enjoy competition, expect to see decent coaching and want to be part of a successful team. But even the refuseniks would be reassured - and perhaps excited - by the quality of the best PE teaching and sports coaching on offer in schools today. And they might be surprised by the sometimes central role that PE staff play in developing young people of all abilities and interests.

The "class of 1985" stereotype, in which half the students enjoyed playing a match while the other half feared being "last pick" and spent their time shivering on the sidelines, has been well and truly left behind. Today's best teachers bring on each individual, develop skills, help to inspire enthusiasm and enjoyment in movement, and draw out the best values of sport, its ethics and expectations. They engage their students in thinking about health and healthy lifestyles, and develop resourcefulness, confidence, resilience and calmness under pressure. And they give young people meaningful opportunities to lead in situations that matter to them.

As a curriculum subject, PE makes a uniquely substantial contribution to the well-being of students. At its best, it improves young people's physical literacy and enthuses them with a lifelong love and habit of being physically active. It stretches their performance capabilities, enhances their physiological efficiency and increases their confidence as they learn to overcome challenges. In situations that can be both competitive and collaborative, students learn resilience, respect for others, and the value of hard work and teamwork.

Coming off the bench

A growing body of evidence indicates that there is potential for PE and sport to have a wider impact. Nowhere is this clearer than in Shaun Dowling and David Woods' new book, The A-Z of School Improvement through PE and Sport, which brings together an eclectic mix of school improvement inspirations, ideas and strategies.

With case studies and thought pieces by a range of contributors including Olympians and Paralympians, athletes, coaches, academics and headteachers, the book demonstrates the power and influence that well-taught PE and sport can have, not only on individuals but also on schools.

It gives evidence-based solutions - some to be implemented at speed, others suggestions for more far-reaching change. Many of these will have resonance for the whole school - they are not solely the preserve of PE departments.

For school improvers, PE and sport provide rich stimuli and compelling analogies. What is now normal practice in PE departments can be translated into other departments or areas of school life to great effect.

Concepts such as sports leadership and captaincy, coaching, personal bests, deliberate practice, continuous improvement and marginal gains can be taken and reapplied in many other areas of life. PE departments might once have had "dinosaur" reputations. Today, they frequently lead in the development of new practice.

Matthew Arnold wrote in 1881 that, although Wellington might have been right that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, many disasters had equally been prepared in the same place through "inadequate mental training.want of application, knowledge, intelligence, lucidity".

Not so now: there is more intelligence, lucidity and application on today's playing fields, multi-use games areas, rubber crumb pitches and gymnasiums than ever before.

Jon Coles is chief executive of United Learning

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