We shouldn’t be scared of championing PE

11th March 2016 at 00:00

My first experience of the horror genre came when, before I’d even started primary school, I chanced upon an episode of Grange Hill. I can’t remember plot details, only the atmosphere: gloomy, featureless corridors; the scraping of chairs in starkly-lit classrooms; steely-eyed teachers walloping children round the head; circling bullies picking out acne-ridden victims, like hyenas on the savannah.

It was all too much. I lurched into the kitchen looking for my mam, my ribs aching from convulsive sobs. “I don’t want to go to secondary school!” I wailed. I was four.

I was gripped by Grange Hill for a good decade after that introduction in 1980.

I found grim fascination in the show’s ne’er-do-wells – like Imelda Davis, who famously stuffed fibreglass down a first-former’s jumper. And while older kids might have been peering through their fingers at Freddy Krueger, I hid behind the settee as bully Norman “Gripper” Stebson stalked the school corridors.

Grange Hill also taught me that I’d need to avoid PE teachers – specialists in casual sadism, it seemed – when I went to secondary school. Most memorably, Geoff “Bullet” Baxter was a mass of simmering aggression in a tracksuit, less teacher than enforcer of inhumane physical drills. (Although, having said that, a quick YouTube check actually reveals Mr Baxter to be a maverick hero, decking a fellow PE teacher who had assaulted a pupil before exiting with the Dirty Harry-like quip, “Slip on the wet floor, did ya?”)

How times change: PE teachers have come in from the margins. Curriculum for Excellence’s emphasis on health and wellbeing gives their subject unprecedented status, and few would deny the transformational power of sport or PE’s ability potential to inspire.

This is serious stuff, as TESS heard at a conference on sport and attainment last week, where a former Glasgow gang member put it bluntly: for some people, participating in school sport might just save them from landing in jail – or ending up in a coffin (see pages 8-9).

Reassuringly, Mark Gallacher told us that in the few years since he left school, attitudes to sport have improved dramatically. But the true test of progress is a few years away.

The most drastic local budget cuts lie ahead: the worst pain has been deferred until after May’s Holyrood elections and, most likely, next year’s council elections. But there are already signs that PE could find itself at the sharp end.

CfE promised to banish some old notions of hierarchies of subjects. But our analysis of council budgets last week (“‘Schools could be closed and children sent home’”, Insight) suggested that, when cuts have to be made, subjects such as music, art and PE remain as vulnerable as ever.

Anyone who sees sport and PE as soft targets for cuts should first consider the inspirational words of 17-year-old Taylor Main, another conference speaker. He joined Perth Academy’s School of Rugby even though he couldn’t catch a ball and had to contend with Asperger’s syndrome and dyspraxia. Now he is a qualified rugby referee and, as a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament, represents 11,000 people.

His verdict on this particular PE-driven scheme is unequivocal: “I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without it.”


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