Sue Wilkinson, the chief executive of the Association for Physical Education (AfPE), was crossing the road on a Friday afternoon when she tripped and fell.
As a former gymnast, she knew how to fall. Wilkinson picked herself up, brushed herself down and carried on. But upon arrival at the café where she was meeting a friend, she began to feel unwell.
By the Monday morning, one of her hands was shaking uncontrollably. While heading to a meeting in London, walking had become difficult. Then things finally came to a head the following weekend.
“I was on the phone to a colleague, and that’s the last thing I remember,” she recalls. Wilkinson had collapsed. The following morning, she found that she couldn’t walk, and was rushed to hospital.
Wilkinson had sustained a severe spinal injury. At one point, it seemed a real possibility that she might never walk again or return to work.
She credits her ability to achieve both these things to the attributes she gained from PE and sport. Now she’s on a mission to make sure young people receive the same benefits. “I can actually stand up now and say, ‘Through PE and school sport, you will have resilient, confident, strong people,’ and I believe that,” she says.
Wilkinson’s love affair with PE started at school. She was fortunate to go to an “excellent state primary school with PE specialists”, where she excelled at gymnastics, hockey and dance. Having originally planned to study law, she was persuaded to go into teaching by two inspirational PE teachers. At university, she picked up lacrosse and trampolining, before embarking on a career as a PE teacher, where she worked at various schools across England.
It seems that during her career, Wilkinson has done most of the jobs going in PE. These include becoming head of department, being seconded to a local authority to work as a PE adviser, and then moving into teacher training by taking over as the PGCE subject lead at the University of Worcester. After that, she went to work for one of the subject associations that eventually became the AfPE.
Wilkinson’s life was turned upside down by her accident 18 months ago. She had to spend eight weeks flat on her back in hospital – her “darkest hour”. The time in intensive care was whiled away counting the ceiling tiles and, unconventionally, trawling the gov.uk website.
Eventually, she was moved upright, given a wheelchair and transferred to another ward, where she discovered that she had broken her shoulder, arm and wrist (“Because of the paralysis, I couldn’t feel it”).
It was here that Wilkinson made the first of a series of personal commitments. “I just said, ‘Right, I’m going to walk out of here,’” she remembers. Health professionals stressed that she had to be “realistic” and accept that it might not happen. “I’m not having that – sorry,” was her polite but firm response.
Wilkinson was offered an operation, but the surgeon issued a stark warning about three possible outcomes: the procedure could slightly improve her condition, have no effect at all, or even leave her paraplegic.
Following the operation, she woke up in the high-dependency unit “to what I thought was somebody squeezing my feet”. It was, in fact, her physiotherapist sticking pins into her – her sensations were returning.
Walking back to happiness
Next, Wilkinson faced a gruelling process of rehabilitation, and it was at this point that she made a second promise to herself. Having found out that she was to be appointed an MBE for services to education, while still undergoing treatment, she bought “the most expensive shoes I [could] find”, which she duly showed her physio with a message: “I want to collect my MBE in these.”
And she did. Wilkinson walked to collect her honour from Prince Charles – before collapsing into a wheelchair in the wings.
She says she’s “relatively back to normal” now, despite currently using a crutch for support. But the whole experience has been “life-changing”, bringing with it a much greater appreciation of the power of PE. She was told that, if it hadn’t been for the core strength developed during a life spent doing sport, she may not have made such a good recovery. But her non-physical attributes were even more important, she believes.
“It’s a long journey, but it’s made me even more determined that every child gets high-quality PE because it will help them deal with anything that’s thrown at them,” says Wilkinson. “Whether that’s good, bad, grief, disappointment – it makes you stronger.”
Her mission to make sure every child gets high-quality PE presents quite a challenge. Although there are examples of “outstanding practice” in the UK, she is deeply concerned that the amount of time allocated to physical activity in schools is being squeezed by a high-stakes accountability system that prioritises exam results above everything else.
While the government once pledged that the London Olympics in 2012 would leave a sporting legacy, Wilkinson thinks the promise has been squandered. “In terms of delivering a lifelong legacy to increase participation, I don’t think we did,” she laments.
Part of the problem, she believes, is school leaders failing to value PE and protect its place in the curriculum. A school can have “the best teachers of PE”, but this will count for little if the headteacher wants to cut the time given to the subject.
Asked why certain heads fail to value PE, Wilkinson concedes that it may still have an image problem. For some people, it continues to conjure images of ill-fitting kit, cross-country running in the pouring rain and drill-sergeant-style teaching (Wilkinson says that Kes, which contains some of these tropes, is a “great film”, but the “worst thing that could have happened” to the subject). Now, the education system has lived with this “myth” for “long enough”.
“No teacher gets up in the morning and says ‘I’m going to teach a rotten PE lesson, I’m going to make kids unhappy’. I think that’s quite insulting to teachers,” she says. The “traditional” model of PE, which preaches tough exercise and fierce competition, barely exists any more, she insists.
For Wilkinson, outdated perceptions of PE are particularly damaging at a time when the country is contending with rising childhood obesity rates – a trend that she says is increasingly visible in our everyday lives.
The trick is to get pupils to want to live healthier lives, she believes.
Teachers can “make a marvellous contribution” to this endeavour by helping to build an “ethos of being physically and emotionally well”. But Wilkinson echoes the recent words of Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, who said schools cannot be a “silver bullet” for childhood obesity: “I don’t think it’s fair to ask a teacher, whose job is to inspire learning, to sit down and have a conversation like ‘you are overweight, you need to exercise’.”
Changes to the planning system, such as measures to ban fast-food restaurants outside schools and no-parking zones within a 500-metre radius of a school to encourage walking, could play a part, she thinks.
While stories about childhood obesity dominate news coverage, Wilkinson says we shouldn’t forget pupils living in poverty who “are not looking very healthy but from the other end – they’re malnourished, unfit and unwell”, through a combination of lack of food and physical inactivity.
Wilkinson says AfPE members report heartbreaking stories of pupils not wanting to get changed for PE lessons because they are ashamed of being so underweight. “[The teachers] thought it was about kit, but they were actually hiding the fact that they were so skinny.”
A key question remains about how schools can create an environment that is more conducive to exercise when time for physical activity is being encroached upon. Wilkinson argues that PE should be given the same “core” status as English, maths and science. “With that status there has to come the investment and the respect and acknowledgment from headteachers and governors,” she says.
At the moment, the requirement to provide PE differs between local authority maintained schools and academies. The latter only have to offer a “broad and balanced curriculum”, whereas maintained schools have a statutory obligation to provide PE until the end of key stage 4. Even then, Wilkinson says some maintained schools are simply ignoring this duty.
She isn’t keen on the idea of the government mandating a certain amount of time for all schools to dedicate to physical activity. The AfPE had an aspiration for schools to set aside two hours each week, but “people can tend to go through the motions”.
“I would rather see one hour of quality [PE]than two hours of poor quality,” she says.
But Wilkinson does think that the education system needs to take a harder-edged approach to ensure schools are meeting their statutory duty. “When you’re funded centrally, there has to be some monitoring,” she argues, while being agnostic about whether this should be the responsibility of Ofsted or another body.
Reversing the decline in PE is a big ask, but after everything Wilkinson has been through, her determination is not in doubt. Lying in that intensive care bed, she says she made another commitment. “I thought, ‘Right, when I get out of here, we’re going to change things back at base.’”