Mastery, not the mile-wide way

17th July 2009 at 01:00
Comment - Improving on our sporting success

It's that time of year again - Wimbledon, the Ashes (cricket), British Lions rugby, Open Golf and glorious British sporting failure. And, as if scheduled into our sporting calendar, we have the usual debate in the media about how Britain could improve upon its levels of sporting success.

As a former "drillie" in physical education, I last pulled on - or should that read off? - my tracksuit in 1999. Yet in the intervening years, I have not seen any significant progress in the PE curriculum. At the risk of offending my colleagues, we still suffer from the "mile wide, inch deep" approach to curricular design, whereby learners typically get no more than five or six weeks at any activity before moving on to the next one.

The logic, which has been around since the 1970s, has been that children need to be exposed to as many activities as possible in order to allow them to experience somethinganything that they might take up in their leisure time. Of course, the reality is that the limited time given over to each activity is such that there is little likelihood of them gaining any mastery before the dish is snatched off the table to be replaced with another.

One can understand the rationale: not everyone will enjoy the same activity, different sports offer different challenges, some sports are more physically demanding. Then there's the notion that children need a varied physical experience, although this view conveniently ignores the fact that few ever get beyond the beginner phase.

Nearly 20 years ago, I argued for a more limited PE programme, but one that extends children and allows them to experience real mastery and the esteem that goes with it. By moving away from recurrent "taster" activities, we could begin to create coherent programmes that build upon one another from year to year.

Having settled on their school's major sporting activities, the PE department could set about teaching them to the highest possible standard for all children. In this way, schools would have more time to enable clear progression through the years. Along with a comprehensive inclusion policy, this would ensure that learners of all abilities could experience success at a level far beyond anything that can be achieved in traditional "inch deep" programmes.

When selecting a school's major sporting activities, I would consider the local culture. But nothing should prevent a school from majoring in what might be seen as relatively minor sports if they can be taught in an imaginative, challenging and supportive manner. A school in London in the 1960s, for example, taught the pole vault with extraordinary results.

I have always believed that nothing builds high participation levels and high standards in a school better than creating a culture of success in a particular sport. The examples in Scotland are legion of passionate teachers having transformed a school into a leading exponent of an activity in a very short period of time. What people often fail to recognise is that, below the obvious peak of the participationcompetitive pyramid, many children have benefited from belonging to that culture.

National sporting bodies should adopt schools and focus their energies on a captive audience within a single school, as opposed to trying to spread their energies and resources across a wide range schools. My goal would be for every school in Scotland to have a particular sporting focus. This would not be to the exclusion of every other activity, but it would provide a means of encouraging high levels of participation and performance.

Don Ledingham is acting director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today