Would it be such a sweat to bring back PT?

25th July 2008 at 01:00

And here's another thing we can learn from China: physical training (good old PT) for each child. The Chinese government's Operational Rules on PE in Educational Institutions (1990) defines the aim as "to promote the development of students' psychological and physical health, improve their physique ... and help students develop their sense of discipline" - all with the aim of laying a basis for lifelong physical exercise and healthy living.

Physical training is compulsory in schools across China but as schools and regions vary, let me focus on our own partner school, The High School affiliated to the University of Renmin in Beijing, which makes its 4,000 pupils exercise daily in its playground (unless it is raining). Music accompanies the exercises, with instructions relayed to pupils by the sports teacher over loudspeakers. These exercises last for about 15 minutes and consist of a series of routines that focus on different parts of the body, such as waist, back and arms. Boys and girls exercise together. If the exercises of the day are aerobic, they wear PE kit.

Similar compulsory exercises were phased out in Britain in the 1960s, perhaps because it was getting in the way of class time. But I would argue that PT sessions of 20 minutes, three times a week, should be reintroduced in every school, beginning in Year 1. It would take some time out of each day, but it would have a host of benefits. It would do more good physically, psychologically and mentally for each child than any number of social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) lessons, although in reality they should be seen as part of a rounded "wellbeing" programme for schools.

Research has proved that human beings benefit enormously from three periods of physical activity per week in which one "breaks sweat". Good habits would be ingrained for life. The regime would help pupils to develop self-discipline, and schools to become more disciplined places. Pupils would have no option but to do the exercises, participating alongside other children. Most would complain, but all would feel physical and mental benefits.

The Government is doing more than any in recent history to take exercise seriously, for health and recreational reasons. We hear talk of a compulsory entitlement to three hours of sport per week. This is excellent, but falls short of the ideal - because, in any sporting activity, some children become more involved than others, and those who most need exercise are often the ones furthest from the ball. PT is different from PE in that all pupils are involved, and all are doing exactly the same exercises - even, indeed especially - the physically lazy.

Is it militaristic and an infringement of liberty? Perhaps. But this is a good thing. Indeed, pupils would similarly gain much from compulsory participation in Combined Cadet Forces (CCFs), and it is good that the Department for Children, Schools and Families is supportive of these, in marked contrast to the Ministry of Defence, whose failure to do more to support CCFs is very disappointing. Children complain about discipline, but they like it. Being forced to take part in exercises three times a week in long lines, where instructions have to be followed to the letter, will help to ingrain respect for authority as well as a sense of belonging to one community.

As well as aerobic exercises, stretching derived from yoga should also be taught. Dance was part of the "moving and growing" PT agenda that government introduced in 1952, and should form part of the exercise routines. Dance lies innate in every child, as does music, yet far too few have the opportunity to dance.

The Government introduced PT "drill" in 1902 in response to the Boer War and its shock at realising the physical unfitness of British males. A century on, it should reintroduce PT in response to the inadequate physical fitness of British children in general, and as a measure to enhance discipline.

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College in Berkshire.

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