Talkback

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Did you stay up late to see Steve Redgrave and his team row to victory in the Olympic men's coxless fours? This incredible man received his fifth gold medal at the age of 38. Britain has some talented athletes - but are we really supporting them enough?

What are we doing in schools now to help today's students become tomorrow's Redgraves? I'm lucky to work in a college that allows staff and students to follow their sporting interests. We encourage everyone to involve themselves in all sorts of activities - from soccer to singing. We have several sports teams, and students can take advantage of a flexible timetable to go for a run, cycle, or play for their team.

I find that exercise makes it easier for me to concentrate, deliver lessons - in short, to "perform". It's the same for students who exercise. They are usually alert, focused, and enthusiastic. But this precious time for students' physical education is now under threat.

The new demands of Curriculum 2000 mean longer hours for everyone. Although studying another subject means increased breadth and diversity, the downside is less time - not to mention energy - for sport. But PE needs the same status as its academic counterpart. The timing couldn't be more urgent. Today's post-16 students are now studying four or five courses, rather than three. Today's AS student has, on average, three hours more contact time per week than anA-level pupil. And there are extra demands, such as key skills, to fit in. Students are already looking tired. Are we taking on too much?

No wonder not enough of us are exercising. We're exhausted. The average British worker has two hors' less sleep a night than 20 years ago. With so much pressure, it's easy for sport to get sidelined. The victories at Sydney are a distant fantasy for most of us. All we feel capable of when we get home is - nothing. Must it be like this?

Britain should be doing more at grassroots level to nurture top-class athletes. There is still no clear national sporting curriculum, policy, or system. We are in danger of sending out the wrong messages, of implying that academic breadth is more important than preventing future obesity, cancer, or many of the "fatigue" illnesses so common today.

True "sport for all" should mean that every child, from eight to 18, gets regular exercise. Sport's a way of life, not a timetable slot. We need too to smash the prejudice that rugby and rowing are only for posh kids and instead promote "accessible" sports like running or swimming. The concept of malefemale dominated sports also must be challenged. Unless we do something, Britain will remain a nation of knackered zombies, never performing at their own personal best.

Given the right encouragement, most people would love to improve their health. Educational institutions are ideally suited to help bring about this change early on. Students spend most of their waking hours at work. But although schools do what they can - and some places are indeed "centres of excellence" - the national picture is too uneven.

Too many are giving up on sport far too early. We need more support from our "listening" Government. Health is so important - what are we without it? Work it out.

Cassandra Hilland teaches at Farnham College, Surrey


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