The PE crisis that's too big to ignore

16th March 2001 at 00:00
It's often the little details that make the biggest impact. On my first visit to the United States, I was amazed by the large number of exceedingly overweight people. My impressions of America had been filtered through Hollywood, but I learnt quickly that many people do not fit the trim and tanned stereotype.

On the first evening, our walk to the nearest restaurant was accompanied by jeers and whistles from people in passing cars who found it strange that anyone should indulge in such an activity. We should have realised that walking was not normal when we noticed the absence of a sidewalk.

Perhaps pavements will disappear in Britain now we are well on the way to joining America at the top of the league table of obesity thanks to the sedentary, fast-food lifestyle of our present generation of schoolchildren. Even the Scottish Parliament has heard questions about children's fitness.

Of course, children themselves do not like to listen to adults criticising their generation's physical fitness, and our own P7 pupils will put up a robust defence citing all the activities in which they participate, but while I nod wisely and lend a sympathetic ear, I know that most of their predecessors of just 10 years ago could go on to our nearby parkland and run non-stop around the one-mile circular path while few can do it today.

It's not just physical health that is in danger. Reputable evidence shows that frequency of exercise contributes to children's attainment. The problem is not being ignored. Millions of pounds of Government cash is spent on a variety of schemes to encourage participation in sport. However, it's not enough and the money is unlikely to do much good. Spending is patchy. Anybenefits are for children who live in particular areas or who are motivated to stay for extracurricular activities or whose parents provide the encouragement to join a club. If we are serious about improving fitness levels then money has to be spent on improved provision and on increased time for all.

Improved provision should start in primary school where good educational habits begin. A five-year plan to develop the confidence of primary teachers in physical education could be tackled on a similar basis to the training provided in modern languages. Alternatively, a decision could be made to train and employ a greater number of visiting specialists. The best PE specialists provide their own staff development working alongside class teachers in every lesson but their visits have to be regular, on a weekly basis at least. Headteachers also have to ensure that PE has proper status through provision of effective timetabling and better than adequate resources.

In many schools, increased time would be necessary to provide classes with three, or four, weekly PE periods and now that the McCrone agreement has broken the link between the pupil day and a teacher's contact time it should be possible to extend the pupil day by 30 or 40 minutes so that adequate time is given without affecting a teacher's conditions of service.

America may be losing the battle against obesity and we need to do better than produce a Mickey Mouse strategy. Effective steps have to be taken urgently to develop strength, flexibility and stamina in all our pupils. Otherwise the children who are needed to support the NHS for my old age will be drawing scarce resources to themselves while still in their youth.

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