Medals don't help the dead

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Too much attention is given to Olympic sports and not enough to fitness, says Hilary Mason, who wants to introduce a physical hour

Although they are generally referred to in the same sentence, PE and sport are not the same thing at all. PE is what teachers are expected to deliver in schools. The subject is vast - and quite intimidating for many non-specialist teachers, encompassing as it does gymnastics, dance, games, athletics, swimming and outdoor and adventure activities. And that's just the physical curriculum. PE also has elements of science, ICT, health and fitness, team building, PSHE, problem solving and thinking.

Contrary to popular belief, PE is also a tough subject in which to gain an A grade at GCSE and A-level, and teachers therefore need all the help they can get to teach this subject well.

Sport, on the other hand, is about just that - sport. It is about learning how to play a particular game or event, through the acquisition of sport-specific skills. Sport is also the route to Olympic medals, premierships and world cups.

While PE is managed by schools, sport is presided over at a national level by governing bodies and sports associations, and performed by local clubs.

Clubs need a constant supply of fresh, young talent and schools are the obvious places to look. It is therefore in the best interests of sports clubs to work closely with teachers.

Many already do and there are lots of excellent examples of school, club and community links. But the current vision is limited. It is all right for clubs to offer coaching in schools but, by definition, the sessions are about teaching the skills needed for particular sports - football, rugby, tennis and so on - and the ultimate aim of the club remains that of spotting and poaching talented players.

At the end of last year, Sport England (the organisation responsible for distributing National Lottery money to sport in this country) and UK Sport (charged with taking care of our elite sports performers) each announced their top 10 priority sports. Described by Patrick Carter, chairman of Sport England, as the sports "considered most important by the nation", these will receive the lion's share of pound;104m earmarked for sport.

leaving 20 per cent (pound;26m) for the remaining sports.

Those left over, described as "developing sports", are those that, in surveys, many young people say they most want to take part in. They include activities such as aerobics, basketball, street dance, roller-hockey and trampolining. A glance at the 20 most popular choices shows that they represent England's best chances of winning Olympic medals, and in the last two Olympic Games, 50 per cent of them did win medals.

At a time when we can no longer ignore the huge rise in obesity, this emphasis on funding the elite sports seems misguided. This Government, unlike previous ones, has understood the importance of PE, has introduced a strategy to raise standards and has given extra funding.

The target is to provide 75 per cent of all schoolchildren with at least two hours of PE a week. These two hours can be in curriculum time or in out-of-hours clubs and programmes. It is a nod in the right direction but, as a target, it is not reaching far enough.

In reality, schools will offer perhaps one hour a week of timetabled PE and the remainder through voluntary after-school clubs - nowhere near enough physical activity for young bodies to stay healthy.

To make a real difference, pupils need an hour a day every day. At the risk of receiving irate letters from outraged teachers, I would like to suggest that it is time for the Government to introduce a compulsory physical hour into schools - even if this means extending the school day.

We have a literacy and numeracy hour in primary schools, so why not take children's health as seriously as their reading, writing and numeracy? As Roger Millward, chief executive of the Swimming Teacher's Association, once said to me in an interview, "What good is the literacy hour if you're dead?"

How would I expect schools to manage the physical hour? That's where sports associations and clubs must come in. The challenge is to develop school-club programmes that teach all-round PE skills, not just sport-specific ones. The priority has to be to keep young people active.

First, the governing bodies have to learn the language of education, especially physical education. I don't see this happening at the moment.

While money is given for Olympic and elite performance, the clubs that nurture the medal winners of the future are forced to search for gifted players. What about all the rest? What about all those young people who know they will never make it into a team, let alone on to the Olympic podium - the very ones who urgently need to get off the couch?

It's all a question of priorities. Is it medals we are after, or a healthy population? We should be able to achieve both, but first, as in Australia, we have to make PE a core, compulsory subject that is taken as seriously as reading, writing and ICT.

Hilary Mason is editor of Sportsteacher

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