The minister's two-hour treadmill

10th February 2006 at 00:00
No apologies, I'm back on PE again. It's too tempting when the Scottish Executive has just issued a report on the time given to physical education in Scottish schools. It claims the figures will be a baseline for measuring progress towards its target of two hours per week for all children by 2008.

The baseline idea is respectable but there is nothing else encouraging in the data. The overall picture is so shameful that the Education Minister must wish that he had allowed a longer time - perhaps 20 years longer - to put PE right. He has no chance of doing it by 2008.

The figures show the average weekly time for PE in primary schools as one hour and 10 minutes. In S1 to S4, the average allocation is one hour and 40 minutes. The Western Isles provides the briefest time in primary (46 minutes) and secondary (66 minutes). Angus manages most in primary (97 minutes), with Scottish Borders top in secondary (113 minutes). That's if you believe the figures.

The real picture is likely to be worse. Plenty schools inflate their data to make them look better and, in this matter, they can blur their understanding of a straightforward question too. So they twist the clear description "taught physical education lessons" to include cycling proficiency and health education. Or a spokesperson defends his low-achieving council with the excuse that its pupils take part in many after-school sports. It's not the same thing and schools know it.

The minister expects that an increase in qualified PE teachers will boost PE time to two hours per week by 2008. He may succeed in producing the teachers, but they won't solve the problem. Nor will better training for primary class teachers. This is because all efforts are at the mercy of substandard accommodation, the legacy of decades of neglect of primary PE.

Recently, The TES Scotland has reminded readers of my belief that the shared gym and dining hall is the most serious barrier to effective primary PE. But it has accomplices too. I know one village school where the hall is shared between dinners and the nursery, with PE a poor third when pupils have to clear nursery furniture and equipment as a prelude to their lesson.

Some village schools don't even have a large space, so children trudge to an unheated village hall in all weathers and winter darkness, again clearing and resetting furniture.

Even schools with the luxury of a dedicated gym will not be enough to help the minister achieve his weekly two hours. Schools of 14 classes (around 400 pupils) are common in many towns and, by simple arithmetic, they require 28 hours for PE in a 25-hour pupil week - and that is before timetabling an assembly or two or a visiting theatre group.

Don't pretend that playground PE will make up the accommodation shortfall except on a few random days in the summer term and early autumn. A seven-class primary with a shared hall might manage 15 PE hours per week, just achieving the recommended two hours per pupil.

Then there are changing rooms, taken for granted in secondary schools but omitted from many primaries at the planning stage. Weird and wonderful arrangements have to be invented for changing older primary pupils in toilets and cloakrooms, resulting in teacher supervision so stretched that accidents and bullying are avoided only by the use of crossed fingers.

With the class changed and in a timetabled, food-free slot, comes the final obstacle - the equipment store, narrow, deep and dark and designed without any consideration of the users' height or strength. Some teachers will dig out the equipment themselves, but many are not able. Best to do without and save time, they might think.

Two hours of PE per week is a laudable but glib aim. Considering the obstacles, we should congratulate, rather than criticise, primary schools on their PE achievements to date.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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