Obstacle race sport has to win

7th May 2004 at 01:00
The Duke of Edinburgh believes true education must improve body as well as mind and welcomes society's rediscovery of the benefits of exercise

Am I not right in maintaining that a good education is that which tends most to the improvement of mind and body?' Plato (300 BC) I think that most people would agree with Plato, but that does not mean that there is general agreement about how much time should be spent on the improvement of the mind and how much on the body. In these days, when academic qualifications have become so desirable, time and measures to improve the body have necessarily been restricted.

Neither does it mean that everyone is equally enthusiastic about the methods employed by educators in the business of improving the body.

Indeed, throughout history, the pendulum has swung quite violently between the protagonists of more and less physical education, and in all ages there have been young people who have loved or hated games and sports. It is also true that there is a big difference of view between those who like to participate themselves, and those who become passionate about watching others compete.

The combined consequences of "the permissive society" and the demand for academic qualifications have been the relaxation of discipline in schools and the swing of the pendulum towards those with less enthusiasm for games and sports. Hours of the curriculum devoted to physical exercise have decreased, and the workload of many teachers, who may once have felt an obligation to devote some of their own time to running games, means they no longer have the time or feel quite the same urge to do so.

Furthermore, many local authorities - already under financial pressure - have seen the decline in curriculum time devoted to sports as a reason to sell off school playing fields for development. Added to this has been the very understandable reluctance of schools and individual teachers to encourage any activity that might be seen as risky, and therefore make them liable to litigation.

One of the consequences of this swing in attitudes has meant that many local sports clubs have had to provide facilities for children who wish to enjoy sports and games, or whose parents wish them to do so, when they are not available at their schools. National governing bodies of sports have also had to find the resources to initiate junior sections, find volunteers, fund coaching schemes, and provide extra facilities.

All this applies to recreational activities which can be practised within a reasonably convenient area. For children in urban areas, it is usually necessary to travel considerable distances in order to participate in walking, climbing, equestrian and water-based sports. The national governing bodies need to be structured to cope with this.

There are two other conflicting attitudes, which have a significant influence on the perception of sport as an essential part of education.

Success in international competitions and championships undoubtedly lifts national morale, and is seen as giving the nation greater "prestige". The result of this is to suggest that national success can be achieved by concentrating on the development of potential champions.

Opposed to this perception are those who believe in the principle of "sport for all", irrespective of talent or potential gold medals. An added factor, although greatly to be welcomed, has been the wish to provide for the growing involvement of disabled participants in an ever increasing number of games and sports.

Overshadowing these dilemmas is the national structure of sports administration. This is a problem for every country, but it is more complicated here because of the division of Britain into the four home countries, and the fact that, for several sports, they are separately represented on the international governing bodies. It is further compounded by the fact that the four home countries, as well as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, participate separately in the Commonwealth Games. Yet they all have to come together to compete in the Olympic Games. This causes an administrative nightmare for governments and their agencies, but it also creates serious problems for the voluntary governing bodies of sports and recreations. Either the "British" associations have to divide themselves for some international competitions, or the national associations have to combine to produce "British" teams.

Another factor is that sport in schools, in universities and in the community comes under different government ministries or agencies. Various suggestions, stretching over many years, have been made to sort out this muddle, but to no avail.

My impression is that the pendulum is beginning to swing back towards those who would like to see better provision for physical education in schools and a greater emphasis on the value of regular exercise for every age-group in the community.

I am sure that everyone interested in the education of the body will welcome The Times Educational Supplement's Get Active campaign.

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