So why are we so obsessed with competitive team games? Phil Revell finds growing support for a fresh approach that gives everyone a sporting chance of taking part
Physical education is under pressure in the UK - most schools devote little more than 100 minutes a week to it in curriculum time, which is less than many other European countries. And with full implementation of a revamped national curriculum due by September 2000, teachers of school sport and PE must be concerned over the future of their beleaguered subject.
The curriculum currently embraces games, physical education, gymnastics, athletics, swimming, dance and outdoor education, to a greater or lesser extent, with two of these being optional. Draft proposals now under discussion suggest cutting this list, with the possibility of removing outdoor education altogether. Some may heave a sigh of relief that the subject is not likely to be dismembered further, but others, who would like to see school sport and PE given a major overhaul, will be disappointed.
The problems for PE are clear. Primary teachers lack the expertise needed to deliver it effectively - only a minority have had more than a few hours' PE-related training, and many have little confidence in their ability to deliver the subject. Further up the key stages the problem switches to the pupils, with PE often deeply unpopular. Girls in particular seem to be turned off in their droves.
Many girls try to bunk off PE lessons, and parents (possibly remembering their own experiences with a shudder) are often happy to comply with a note.
Research by Exeter University's Professor Neil Armstrong shows teenage girls prefer individual activities and are six times more likely than boys to give up sport when they leave school.
"Teachers need to look at what they are offering," he says. "There is a huge emphasis on competitive team games - they dominate the curriculum. But for girls, individual and partner activities are the most popular. The limited time PE has on the curriculum needs to be devoted to the majority, not to the three or four kids who are good at everything."
Professor Armstrong none the less emphasises his sup-port for competitive team games but says "there has to be a balance".
In Loughborough, the newly-appointed professor of youth sport, David Kirk, echoes this view. He plays veteran's hockey, but there can be few people who, like him, play competitive team sports into their 40s. "If you look at participation patterns and trends for the adult population, the principal physical activity is walking. You might get jogging, aerobics or fishing. Then you might get tennis, and way, way down the bottom comes competitive team sport.
"If physical educators argue - as they have for many years - that they are preparing young people for an active lifestyle, and the PE diet is team sport - it's a nonsense. The argument has been 'Let's give them more and more of this stuff because they're bound to realise it's good for them'."
Professor Kirk says part of the problem is the way PE is presented in schools - with the emphasis on moving as quickly as possible to "a proper game".
"The Dutch do not allow young children to play 11-a-side soccer," he points out. In the Netherlands younger children play four or seven-a-side games on small pitches with simplified rules. These are modified to suit children as they mature physically, developmentally and emotionally.
Health education experts would also like to see increased emphasis on activity and less on the game. Recent government surveys have shown that childhood obesity is on the rise and that schools, communities and local authorities need to increase opportunities for children to be active. Health Minister Tessa Jowell last year called for an hour of physical activity every day. A Health Education Authority report, Young and Active, asks schools to "take into account both the perceived needs of young people and those expressed by young people themselves".
Sue Campbell is chief executive of the Youth Sports Trust, a national sports charity that delivers the TOPs programme of activities. These aim to foster children's skills and confidence across a range of sports. She has strong views about the "pick-and-mix" approach to sport adopted by some schools - what she calls "the dibble and dabble mentality - six weeks of this and six weeks of that.
"Children fail to develop real competence in anything. And then when you research the reasons why they drop out, you find they think they are not good enough at anything to carry on playing it."
Like Professor Armstrong, Sue Campbell argues that the curriculum needs to offer a better balance than at present. "We need to allow children to go deep enough so they actually gain some competence. PE has to provide a competence base and a confidence base which says 'I don't know that sport, but I know what goes on and I think I could give it a go'."
In primary schools literacy and numeracy initiatives have added to the existing pressures. But Sue Campbell argues that schools with confident staff have found solutions.
"We're not being creative enough," she says. "Young children love to move, it's part of their nature. PE can be used to help literacy and numeracy. The Youth Sports Trust is working with the Government on an out-of-school initiative, using lottery money."
She would like to see this avenue explored further, with basic skills covered in curriculum time and sport developedbeyond the formal curriculum.
"The importance of the immediate post-school time is becoming increasingly apparent," she says. But she also recognises that development of extra-curricular time will open up a host of contentious issues - not least of which is payment for the teachers and coaches involved.