Less is more off waistlines

18th June 2004 at 01:00
There's always something to fret about. The issue of obese kids not getting enough school sport has come up again, just in time for your low-impact, non-competitive sports day (held under cover owing to the risk of skin cancer, and sustained by a cake stall provided entirely by Mr Kipling because you can no longer trust mums to bake a Victoria sponge without poisoning people).

Various government bodies and anxious quangos are wringing their hands over the inability of British schools to provide even the paltry two hours a week of physical activity laid down in the curriculum. We are all choking on our own fat due to insufficient netball and the demise of the vaulting-horse. Woe, woe, doom, doom!

Actually, I rather agree. The pathetically small amount and depressing quality of PE provided in British schools has been a disgrace for years; so has the selling-off of playing fields (accelerating every year) and the increasing national fear of adventurous activities, water sports, sunshine and other blessings which were once thought to enhance life but are now seen mainly as threats to it. But what I find hard to swallow in the endless, circular discussions about school sport is the schizophrenic mindset of almost every official, health authority and especially every grant-giving body which ever discusses it.

Basically, they can't seem to agree with themselves on what school sport is for. Even when they trumpet "Sport for All" they cannot quite decide. One minute the aim is supposed to be to produce "the next generation of Olympic hopefuls for Britain", or at the very least some cricket and football teams which beat foreigners. Then the next minute it is something quite different: an essential tool in the "battle against obesity", to make the nation in general fitter and leaner.

But in fact, when it comes to the realpolitik of any school or nation, you can't necessarily have both benefits on the same budget. Look at the old Eastern bloc: a few finely-honed world-beating athletes emerging from a landscape of woefully unfit, vodka-swilling, lumbering citizens with bad feet.

Or look at certain flashy UK schools which shall be nameless: their first XV and first XI sweep the board, their champion gymnasts and tennis players make it into national squads, but meanwhile back at the ranch the majority of pupils who show no special sporting talent remain slow-moving, disaffected and ignored by impatiently ambitious PE staff, and are able to slope off for a fag and a doughnut behind the pavilion or opt for the alternative of art club. Anything which keeps them out of the way of the high achievers.

We have to decide which comes first. If it is the fostering of superb, cutting-edge, rare talents, then it makes sense to concentrate on that: coach aggressively, select pitilessly, and let the weakest go to the wall and lean on it to keep their flab upright. That is the way life is at the top of the sporting tree, so we might as well start them young. If, however, your motive is a genuine concern to get the rising generation moving, and happy to be moving, then you need a different approach altogether.

You need to accept that a couple of dozen giggling kids roaring up and down a pitch playing the most haphazard of football and making up their own rules is a good sight, a happy sight, not a disgracefully undisciplined one. You need to accept cheerfully that Rollerblades and Snakeboards and break-dancing are just as good exercise as things with rules and leagues.

You have to be relaxed about the child who, instead of perfect forward rolls on the gym mat, invariably collapses sideways in cheerful hysterics, kicking his legs in the air.

You need to accept that in fact 14 unsuccessful attempts to stand on one's head burn up more calories than one immaculately successful, Olga Korbut-style movement. You have to remind yourself that the urchin charging up and down parallel to the action, never kicking the ball once all through the match, is getting perfectly good fresh air and exercise and should be left to get on with it.

You need to accept that, even at secondary level, hide-and-seek and kiss-chase are perfectly acceptable school sports (though obviously, it would have to be politically correct kiss-chase, using Velcro tags as in touch-rugby perhaps).

Perhaps we need two kinds of PE:aspirational PE or APE, for the keen and motivated, and cheerful, ordinary physical exercise - or COPE - for the rest.

Two kinds of PE teacher would be good, too: one to play the Svengali supercoach with a flashy tracksuit and whistle, and the other a dishevelled figure along the lines of Hagrid of Hogwarts: a Pied Piper with a magnetic personality, full of ideas which involve scrambling, puffing, and skylarking. It's all movement, innit?

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