Sally Goddard Blythe discusses the benefits of exercise to the brain
Chief inspector David Bell's comments that an increasing number of children are entering primary school unable to speak properly, to hold a knife and fork or conform to basic discipline, suggest that society as a whole is failing to provide an environment in which all children have the opportunities to develop the motor and social skills they need.
It is easy to blame parents, but this does not solve the growing problem of children who are simply not "ready" for school.
Two new studies involving several hundred children are due to start in Northern Ireland later this month. One will examine the physical capabilities of a group of four to five-year-olds.
Simple tests, such as standing on one leg and crossing the midline of the body, will be used to see whether the children have developed the basic motor skills necessary to sit still in class and move a pencil across the page from left to right. The children's progress will be monitored over the course of the academic year to see whether those with more mature motor skills show better academic progress.
A second study will take a group of six to seven-year-olds through a daily programme of physical exercises based on movements normally made by a developing child in the first year of life. At the end of the year, the physical skills and academic progress of this second group will be compared to a control group.
Independent studies carried out between 2000-3 in five schools using the same movement programme produced marked improvements in motor, academic and social skills.
At Mellor primary in Leicester. the experimental group showed a 23 months'
improvement in reading age compared to one of 10 months in the control group.
A similar study at Knowle C of E primary in Solihull, completed this summer, showed a gain of 14 months in reading accuracy and comprehension compared to just eight and four months in the control group. However, the gains in reading and spelling were only part of the story.
"There is a dignity to these children that was not there before," wrote Eileen Sylvester, deputy head of St Margaret Mary RC school in Carlisle.
"They no longer bump into each other in the playground and they are far more considerate towards each other. They enjoy doing movements, have a pride in themselves and are calmer and more focused for the morning classes, having done their exercises at the start of the day."
Motor competency is fundamental to learning and social interaction at all ages. Up to 90 per cent of communication is based on non-verbal language.
Long before children learn to speak they make their needs and feelings known through posture, gesture, eye contact and tone of voice. Children whose own body language is restricted will have difficulty co-operating in social situations. Parents can make an enormous contribution by providing simple regular routines such as sitting down at the table for a meal together and reading a bedtime story.
A growing body of evidence suggests that if time is made available in the curriculum for daily physical exercise, it is more than compensated for in social and academic achievement.
Surely it is time that we placed a value on these commodities.
Sally Goddard Blythe is at the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology, firstname.lastname@example.org