Why PE teachers are below the salt

More and better physical education at primary school would be better than employing a raft of sportsco-ordinators , says Drew Livingstone

ecently I watched a TV programme advocating that all young people should eat less salt, as it was contributing greatly to us becoming obese and unhealthy as a nation.

A pound;4million campaign was being launched to try to change things and, listening to the presenter, one could have been easily mistaken for thinking that salt was the cause of obesity in our nation and of our lack of fitness. I wondered what effect this campaign would really have on the general population.

The same day I picked up the jobs section of a newspaper and there were advertised a large number of posts for sports co-ordinators in a number of activities. Indeed, as I scanned that and other previous editions in more detail, I realised the large number and variation of such posts throughout Scotland.

I believe passionately that, if young people are regularly and actively involved in physical and competitive activities, enormous academic dividends result and school ethos is much improved. That was certainly my experience over 15 years as a headteacher.

What I do question, however, is whether such sports co-ordinator posts are the best use of scarce resources and whether those appointed will make any long lasting and positive improvement in the fitness of young people.

Indeed, will they have real job satisfaction as they survey the fruits of their efforts?

I make these comments because of my memory of numerous previous initiatives, such as in rugby, where years ago development officers were drafted into schools for a period of time to start up or develop further that sport . While in a school they were most successful but, when they moved on to pastures new, in too many cases the sport died and little benefit accrued.

It appears to me that, for all the fine words spoken by politicians - including Education Minister Peter Peacock - and those in authority about the need for more active young people, the launching of yet more initiatives and the appointment of yet more co-ordinators or sports tsars, no one looks for the easiest and simplest solution which actually works.

And what might that be, you ask?

I would argue that appointing physical education teachers in each primary school with the remit to have regular PE and competitive team activities for all pupils would have a much more long-lasting and positive effect than the many other initiatives we now see in sport and health education. It is after all the PE teacher in the school, rather than the peripatetic outside co-ordinator, who knows the pupils and can encourage and motivate them to participate.

In secondary schools, I would again support the appointment of sufficient physical education specialists to allow PE to be compulsory for all students, even up to age 18, and allow competitive school sport to develop and flourish "in house".

I also question strongly if using the PE teachers' time to teach Standard or Higher grade PE to relatively few students is the best use of their time and expertise.

Now, of course, I appreciate that we will be told the Executive hopes to achieve these objectives in the long run but that money does not allow for this immediate increase in staffing. In addition, some will argue the school timetable is already too crowded to contemplate increasing PE contact time. This I cannot accept. If the curriculum in primary or secondary school is too full to give each pupil regular PE and sport each week, then stop the all-too common new educational initiatives and throw something out.

What is more important than the physical and mental well-being of young people? That should be priority one and it will, I argue, also result in better attitudes to school and as a consequence improved academic work in the classroom.

In addition, maybe if we could get all our youngsters more involved in physical activities and sport in schools at an early stage, we might be able to stop the drift to alcohol, smoking and drugs we now see so prevalent in society among bored youngsters with no real interests.

The argument that no new money exists for the immediate employment of extra PE specialists in either primary or secondary schools should also be questioned.

One only has to examine the number of people being appointed as sports co-ordinators and administrators throughout the country, and measure that against the huge sums being spent on bureaucracy and often wasted on unsuccessful health education initiatives and campaigns in schools. The Pounds 4million being spent on the anti-salt message - not to mention the pound;400m on the Scottish Parliament - shows that the money is there. It just needs to be redirected to the front line and away from the pen-pushers and policy-producers.

Finally, in case any TESSreaders think my belief in the value of sport is due to the fact that I am or was a PE teacher, I had better come clean and state that I was a mathematician.

Drew Livingstone was a headteacher from 1987 to 2002.

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