'Literacy hour' urged for PE

20th October 2000 at 01:00
IF children reached the end of their primary years reading the way they move, there would be a public outcry, according to a senior lecturer in physical education at Edinburgh University.

"If you go into school and read once or twice a week and that is the only reading you do, will you become a good reader? I don't know. But if you look at everything that is happening, say in England in terms of literacy and numeracy, it's daily, it's an hour, it's work at home," Mike Jess says.

Most pupils take part in PE only a couple of times a week and that is not enough, he insists. "To learn to move effectively, they need to practise."

Activities, such as jumping, running, catching, throwing and balancing need to be learnt in a programme of basic movements, the head of Edinburgh University's proposed child movement centre maintains.

It's a familiar refrain among secondary PE teachers that many pupils coming up from primary might almost be classed as physically illiterate. Mr Jess, who has taught PE in primary and secondary in Fife, accepts there is ample anecdotal evidence of how poorly physically skilled children are but little hard evidence.

That knowledge gap will hopefully be plugged by the extensive research he is involved in north and south of the border to highlight the basic skills and motivation young people need to open up sporting and recreational activities in their youth and later life.

"A lot of the research we are doing shows that when children, particularly girls, get into adolescence they drop out because they are able to make a decision. A lot of that relates to motivation and how they feel about themselves. Our research is looking at the link between movement competence and perceptions of that movement competence and how that relates to participation and staying involved," he says.

Mr Jess's point is simple - if expensive and controversial. Turn the focus of physical education on to the primary years, just as early intervention in literacy and numeracy aims to raise standards in the longer term. For the past 15 years or more, the emphasis in PE has been on secondary and certification while in primary it is part of expressive arts and "gets lost".

From rcent experience with community sports colleges south of the border, Mr Jess believes there is much to commend the model of linking schools closely to clubs. Mr Jess is not a fan of early specialisation for the talented, a move advocated by the major sports bodies keen to recruit as early as possible in a competing market. Instead he is working on multi-activity programmes that improve children's athletic base and underpin deeper involvement at a later age.

"If lifelong participation and talent development are to be an achievable aim we need to focus on the primary years. That is where it starts. We need developmental programmes, not only in movement but in terms of knowledge and motivation.

"It's not about letting the kids play and leaving it to chance; it's not about early specialisation; it's having a strategic approach."

He adds: "The model still tends to be that we train secondary PE teachers and part of their job is primary. But most people that coach youth sport have started off either as PE teachers or worked with older people and moved their way down. Parents get involved and work their way through."

Mr Jess is not a great believer in daily PE if it is not accompanied by expert teaching over a long period. However, he admits that career patterns present difficulties for primary PE specialists.

Instead, Mr Jess argues that a primary PE specialist should be based in the community. "I would love to see lots of people out there working in clusters and communities and liaising with secondaries," he says, acknowledging that there would be widespread repercussions for professional training.

Emphasis on the pre-adolescent base would also end the "piecemeal, pot luck" approach Scotland currently has to identifying talent. "The reason for that is maturation. The big kid at the age of 11 will not necessarily be the big kid at 15 or 18. It's only when they get to 16 we have a better idea," Mr Jess says.

If the rumpus earlier this year in North Lanarkshire about abandoning 11-a side football for primary-age kids is a Scottish barometer, the Jess solutions seem detached from the reality of sporting traditions. But at least someone is raising the big questions.

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