Zen and the art of target setting

20th June 2008 at 01:00
Buddy Glass, the narrator in JD Salinger's Seymour: An Introduction, describes how his elder brother was a "kind of heller" at kerb marbles
Buddy Glass, the narrator in JD Salinger's Seymour: An Introduction, describes how his elder brother was a "kind of heller" at kerb marbles. He was simply unbeatable, and the secret of his success lay in an inimitable sleight of hand, a flick of the wrist that sent the marble scudding along the kerb like a flat stone over water.

Buddy explains that it is always difficult for the second player in this game to hit the target. Almost anything can get in the way, including plain old lousy aim. The streets are never smooth, there are wads of chewing gum everywhere, and bad bounces are par for the course.

Like Seymour, we must throw our marbles far and wide, or risk losing them altogether. The number of online postings in response to The TESS report, "PE target runs it course" (April 18), tells its own story. Moreover, there is a broad consensus that this turnaround "is a shame and a disgrace".

The correspondents identify a number of factors that have contributed to the current low status of PE in our schools. These include the progressive reduction of time allocation; a perceived shortage of specialist PE teachers (andor a reluctance on the part of some authorities to employ them); competing demands on facilities; and the gradual erosion of the lunch hour, with its opportunities for active play.

One contributor to the online forum accused the SNP of reneging on an election pledge. However, as another correspondent pointed out, "the advice came from employers and bosses in education departments, not ministers".

The kerb marbles story demonstrates an unpalatable truth: namely, that targets are there to be missed. The point, perhaps, is just to take a long shot with a casual underhand toss. It is a bonus if you hit the target, because you secretly didn't expect it to happen.

Of course, this is heresy in a climate dominated by crisis narratives on the one hand ("schools told to tackle teenage obesity crisis"), and a burgeoning accountability culture on the other ("youth crime board is failing to meet targets"). Failure is inadmissible in our society, and certainly in our education system. A Curriculum for Excellence is the name of the game. However, it appears that bad light may have stopped play.

We were perplexed to discover that if PE has not entirely disappeared from the revised curriculum, then it is lurking in the changing room. It remains to be seen whether it will fall through the cracks between health and well-being and the expressive arts. Like the exasperated Pete Sake from The TESS forum, we await with bated breath to see "what the bureaucrats mean when they are now going to concentrate on outcome-based policies".

Anne Pirrie is reader in education and Elizabeth Marsden is a lecturer in physical education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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