Radiating energy?

10th February 1995 at 00:00
Diane Spencer visits a school whose pupils take part in army-style problem-solving manoeuvres as part of their PE programme. The head of physical education at Midhurst intermediate school in West Sussex asks his headteacher to sign requisition notes for some odd pieces of "sports equipment": milk crates, blindfolds, plastic tubing and elastic bands in addition to the more usual bats and balls.

Stewart McKenzie believes in storing lots of small bits of equipment so that every pupil has access to something (the more bizarre items on his shopping list are used for problem-solving activities). He has also amassed a formidable collection of documents to plan and implement a PE curriculum for the 400 pupils in this 10-13 (Years 6 to 8) school set in large grounds on the edge of town.

"But we haven't really altered our approach to the curriculum since 1991, " he said, brandishing the original Order.

In the three years since he became head of a department of two, he has put together a handbook outlining policy, curriculum design and structure, programmes of study for key stages 2 and 3 in games, athletics, dance, gymnastics, health-related exercise and outdoor and adventurous activities, and assessment forms for teachers and pupils. So at the end of term or year pupils know what they are good at and how they can improve. Parents also get a detailed report on their child's progress.

In Years 6 and 8 children have two 55-minute PE lessons a week and three in Year 7, making up 10 per cent of curriculum time. "I argued the case for PE on general educational grounds, which the head supported, but I had to fight for the third lesson in Year 7. It's appalling that some schools only have 5 per cent of lesson time." He also has to bid yearly for capitation which is currently around Pounds 700 - more than the average junior school, but less than a secondary.

Midhurst's PE curriculum aims to achieve depth of learning and progression from year to year. In games, for example, pupils begin to learn the common skills and principles of team games - attacking and defensive tactics, throwing, catching and striking a ball and then go on to play simplified versions of competitive team and individual games.

The tennis courts are marked so that eight mini-games can be played at once and the football area can be divided into small pitches - 10 by 14 metres -for Hoopball, a three-a-side "invasion" game for Year 6.

For the keen ones, the school runs a variety of clubs after school: cricket, football, dance, exercise, gym, badminton, cross-country running, tennis, hockey. "We aim to extend the curriculum work after hours," said Mr McKenzie, who is running dance and exercise this term. "The school is doing well in cross-country running and gym in the county leagues at the moment."

He takes a strong, uncompromising line on teaching health-related exercise which is hardly surprising since he was involved in Loughborough University's health and PE project in the late 1980s which recommended that HRE should be taught separately. The new Order implies that HRE should permeate the curriculum rather than be taught as a discrete subject.

Aspects such as warming up and cooling down are taught as part of other activities, but "you can't fit it in ad hoc into a games lesson" so HRE is on the timetable as a unit of work with 12 lessons each year. The first-years learn about the short-term effects of exercise, Year 7, exercise and energy balance, and Year 8, exercise and muscle health.

The outdoor and adventurous activity part of the national curriculum is fitted into 12 lessons in the summer term of Year 7. Mr McKenzie interprets it as problem-solving and decision-making as well as a physical challenge. This is where the milk crates come in. They are part of a game in which pupils, working in small groups, have to pretend there has been a leak from the radiation chamber (the crate containing washing-up liquid bottles placed in the centre of a 3-metre square) and before it is safe to investigate more closely, they must carefully lift the radioactive rods (the bottles) from the chamber using ropes and elastic band provided. No one is allowed to enter the room (marked square) and the crate must not be moved.

This is just one of many activities which teach pupils how to plan, perform and evaluate a solution to a problem, showing effective communication and teamwork skills. "And it's great fun."

Dance is the hardest area to teach and quantify, he finds, as he is not a specialist and "learned next to nothing about it in teacher training". But he is keen and has been on in-service courses. Mr McKenzie firmly believes it should be part of the PE programme and loves teaching it. It was well established when he came to the school five years ago, but, he admits, "it's our least developed area".

The children have 12 lessons every year based on particular themes which are enlivened by a workshop run by the Rambert Dance Company. Year 6 work on cats, kites and martial arts, Year 7 on fashion and prisoners and Year 8 on images of African warriors and feelings with the help of poems, videos and music. "It's so important for the children to express themselves through movement. Boys in particular aren't used to that - it's lacking in their education."

"If you do country dancing you could probably fulfil the NC," said Mr McKenzie, hastily adding, "We wouldn't do that."

The "recognised dance" requirement is covered by a set motif from Rambert's production, "Strong Language" in Year 8, for example. "But we don't fulfil it to the letter," he says. "I was disappointed by the new Order - dance was on the agenda in 1991, now it's been taken away. You could go back 20 years and fulfil its requirements."

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