PE doesn't go with chips and cabbage

9th July 2004 at 01:00
Let's give two and a half cheers for the report of the review group on physical education. It's easier to read than its title, addresses the crucial issues facing school PE and has inspired Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, to declare that he will "sanction the biggest boost to physical education in schools for generations".

"For generations" is the giveaway. I can't remember any boost to primary PE during the past 35 years, so there's a lot of catching up to do. Any development has been down to enthusiastic individuals who ploughed on in the face of disinterested headteachers, education departments and the secondary-orientated PE establishment. Even the inclusion of PE within 5-14 expressive arts lowered its status.

Now it's time to jump on the bandwagon and join everyone from anti-drugs campaigners to supporters of the enterprise culture, who has realised belatedly that progress is more likely if children are caught during their early years. The PE report gives plenty of space to primary education, an area which its practitioners have previously treated with disdain. However, better late than never.

So why do I give a grudging two and a half cheers? The report is welcome and long overdue but it is a little sketchy on some crucial details. "Every primary school should have adequate access to support from a physical education specialist," it says. Four hundred extra PE teachers.

Good for primaries, surely? Well, it's the part about allocating them to the secondary PE department that's worrying. Secondary schools are not good at seeing beyond their own needs and any teacher based in a secondary school is regarded as a member of its own staff, to be organised and managed in whatever way the secondary school requires. Creating small classes, covering for staff absence, attendance at courses, travelling time - the secondary school will regard all of them as more important.

After a year or two of this, the post will be subsumed within the secondary establishment as the primaries give up fighting, reckoning on easier returns elsewhere for less effort. The review group is encouraging the continuation of the "crumbs from the rich man's table" attitude.

Even where staff time is released to primaries, the facilities may not be available. To provide our 400 children from nursery to primary 7 with two weekly sessions of PE means that our gym is timetabled from Monday at 9am to Friday at 3.30pm, and even then only the oldest children are receiving two hours. Weekly assemblies and occasional visiting theatre groups increase the pressure and we are one of the lucky schools with a dedicated gym.

For many primaries, the most serious barrier to effective PE teaching is the shared hall. By 11am, dinner arrangements take over so the afternoon begins with a damp floor and the lingering smell of cabbage. A forgotten chip lurks in a corner, hoping to propel a gymnast on to her back. Not the most inviting setting for physical exercise. Not the best use of space either.

Gym halls-cum-dining areas have been included in new schools right up until the present, despite concerns about PE and its facilities. The review group has contented itself with remarks about "appropriate facilities" and a referral to Sportscotland guidance when a strong statement condemning dual-purpose halls would have served primaries better.

But the group has done a good job. Its messages are welcome, especially the emphasis on "good quality direct teaching", a wider choice of activities, support for primary teachers and the need for increased staffing. The report has won the approval of the Education Minister but his aim of giving PE its "biggest boost" will require serious financial investment, not just for teachers and training but for improving facilities.

We look forward to the report's implementation. For the sake of the country's health, failure is not an option.

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

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