Play the game

27th October 1995 at 00:00
John Major's sporting dreams are doomed unless primary PE is given the attention it deserves, says Colin Lee.

We are witnessing a hijack. It is non-violent. In fact, it's rather like a game. The game is vigorous, the rules are quite complex because five or six teams are all playing at the same time. Some teams are very vocal, some move swiftly and with considerable purpose, some are rather dazed by the way others are playing the game.

Some players, notably the Government, the Sports Council, national governing bodies and the Youth Sport Trust, are on the pitch at the moment, rushing around trying to find a successful formation. The Office for Standards in Education is the only team playing in blindfolds and the physical educationists are still taking track suits off. The game has been professional for some time and, because the prize is so attractive, sponsors are queuing up to be involved. The prize? Sport in schools.

The game started sedately many years ago but John Major's "raising the game" was the half-time team talk which dramatically increased the tempo - just what the other team managers were waiting for. Unfortunately, several teams are guilty of identical tactical blunders which are restricting progress, and the biggest mistake of all is being made by those who forget that the immovable foundation of sport in schools is national curriculum physical education. The vast majority of young people who become involved in sport, and also those who choose not to be involved, do so as a direct consequence of their experience of physical education in schools.

We can, in fact, go further with this statement about physical education for it is possible to be more precise and draw on much empirical and experiential evidence which confirms that it is the quality of the physical education at key stage 2 which is all-important. The 7 to 11 age range establishes the attitudes, enthusiasms and basic capabilities in physical activity. By the age of 11, most children have sorted out their feelings about physical education and sport. Little wonder that so many recent initiatives by national governing bodies are targeted at this age range and its teachers. However, to disregard the physical education programme of study for key stage 2 and wade into the school environment with freebie taster sessions and gift packs is the greatest folly by the sporting authorities. A much more sophisticated game plan is required and the surest recipe for success is to liaise closely with those who know about children and the physical education which they should be receiving in the national curriculum.

Without such liaison, Sports Council and governing body initiatives could easily become a tremendous waste of money. The children will smile at the photographer from the local paper and say thank you for the "goodies" but no more children will be joining rugby, lacrosse, tennis or any other clubs than did so before these initiatives. And we must be clear about one thing, sport's initiatives are entirely self-centred, the Rugby Football Union seeks future rugby players, the Lacrosse Association is scouting for future lacrosse players - the motive of contributing to a pupil's general physical education is a most minor of considerations.

There is, however, another issue which concerns all the players in the game (with the possible exception of the Government) and that is the actual teaching of physical education. Low standards in that teaching can have a devastating effect on the future of sport both in and out of schools. We do, indeed, have evidence of worryingly low standards at key stage 2 and this must be a source of enormous frustration for sporting authorities who, perhaps understandably, adopt a "let us get at them" attitude, in the belief that what they can offer young children has to be better than what those children are experiencing at present in physical education lessons.

The Government appears ostrich-like in its attitude to the standard of physical education in primary schools, where more than 90 per cent of the teaching is carried out by non-specialists. These teachers have been poorly served by their initial training which, in most cases, has dismally failed to meet their needs. The Government has a two-fold responsibility in this respect. First, by promoting the "market forces" philosophy which prompts institutions of higher education to view sports science as a much better investment than physical education. Second, by adhering to the absurd notion that initial teacher education must conform to a principle which equates a subject's amount of curriculum time in primary schools to the time allocated to each subject in initial teacher-training courses. Physical education is a difficult subject to teach. It has to have more time in qualified teacher status courses. We cannot allow a situation to continue where most primary student teachers are only being trained to teach half the activities in the key stage 2 programme.

We are told that OFSTED is to audit these QTS courses but we should be cautious when the "evidence" emerges for it is known that there are OFSTED school inspection reports which give favourable judgments on a school's physical education without a single such lesson being observed. We should also be suspicious when so little publicity is given to a report such as that by HM Inspectors of Physical Education in Wales which warns of so much unsatisfactory learning and teaching at key stage 2. Is this deliberate suppression? It may well be, especially if the situation in England is the same, that is, the real situation, not what OFSTED reported.

The Government's answer? It wishes to see every trainee teacher being encouraged to acquire coaching qualifications. Just ask any student teacher if he or she can afford that. Money aside, this policy is not the answer. The quality of the coaching qualification is not guaranteed and, more importantly, the need for more training in physical education as a whole is far more urgent. In addition to the changes required in initial training, there is a desperate need for extensive in-service training, the extra funds for which should be an absolute priority. Children must come first and sport has to wait until their physical education is right.

Primary physical education - the over-riding influence on sporting participation and performance - is not about the narrowness of the Government's obsession with the traditional team games. Nor is key stage 2 physical education simply a watered- down version of secondary content and teaching, it has a very specific agenda. Not only do far more people participate in sports other than the games to which they were introduced while at school but the dominance of games at key stage 2 is born of ignorant policy which fails to acknowledge the children's needs. Poorly taught games lessons create more negative attitudes to physical activity than any other experience within physical education and the possession of a "coaching qualification" is not the answer if that qualification is not founded on sound educational principles.

Where such principles are incorporated in a sport's coach education programme, there are reasons for optimism and the results can be impressive when a sport enters active collaboration with physical educationists. The Football Association's recent curriculum guidelines are a prime example of the benefits of liaison with, in this case, the Physical Education Association. Those sports whose coaches must attend National Coaching Foundation courses are seen to possess a relevant body of knowledge and professional understanding and expertise which far exceeds that of most non-specialist primary teachers.

Initiatives which reap the benefit of liaison with informed physical educationists point to the value of partnership and this is the way to overcome the Government's reluctance to acknowledge the centrality of national curriculum physical education in the sport-in-schools debate. If the Sports Council, the national governing bodies or any other players want to win, the answer is to start from the needs of children, talk to the appropriate physical educationists and adapt the initiatives accordingly. In such a situation, children, teachers, physical education and sport are all winners - and winning is what it's all about, so they tell us.

Dr Colin Lee is a physical education consultant.

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