Susan Young gives her weekly round-up of the issues and events in the world of school leadership and management. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT.
Have we won any medals in the past 20 minutes, children?
I’ve come over a bit Victor Meldrew. Like that curmudgeonly old (ish) codger, I cannot believe that in the midst of the Olympics the Government has decided to scrap the compulsory requirement for two hours of sport at school each week, when before us each night is the evidence of people inspired by sport at school.
Being currently at the mercy of decidedly dodgy internet access (to be sorted soon, apparently), I’ve failed to get at any documents from the national curriculum review explaining exactly how this decision has been made, and have to make do with reported quotes from the PM on a radio show, plus the stories in the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. And at this point, I’d just like to remind us that the presence of Mr Cameron to cheer on Team GB at events has been treated rather like the slaying of the Albatross on the Ancient Mariner’s boat – our sometimes superstitious athletes seem not to win when he’s there.
As far as I can work it out, the Coalition thinks that at present the two hours is a target-reaching exercise where not much goes on. Bureaucracy is mentioned in the Daily Telegraph story as eating away at time when lesson planning or extra teaching could go on, although I am frankly mystified at the bureaucracy involved in timetabling PE lessons if there are staff there to teach them. And if there aren’t, where is the extracurricular competitive sport going to come from? Or is that where those untrained teachers who can now be hired by academies come in?
Speaking personally, had my school stopped making me do hockey, or swimming (in an unheated pool), or chucking javelins in a dangerous fashion, I’d have been overjoyed. Gymnastics and rounders, however, I liked. So at least there was some sport I was average at, which kept me going until adulthood when I taught myself to swim, to hill walk, and later, to run. I learned to really enjoy sport (emphatically not of the competitive variety) - but far too late for the Olympics, even had I been inclined or talented that way.
It seems to me that the dominant Conservative element of the Coalition only rates sport if it’s competitive – roughly what Mr Cameron said in his radio interview. Well, that’s fine – do encourage schoolchildren to do it, as they love being competitive – but the important thing in this age where it’s all too easy to become an overeating couch potato (it’s what the experts call an obesogenic environment—do look it up) is to give every child an element of the fun to be had running around and doing physical stuff. That means making sure teenage girls do something energetic each week, even when they don’t want to mess up their hair. There have been sniffy mentions of schools teaching circus skills during PE in some of the news stories: and the problem with that is what, exactly? Presumably it teaches hand-eye co-ordination, agility and general fitness just as much as the Eton Wall Game.
I’d also like to point out that Olympic gold Heptathlete Jessica Ennis, in her BBC interview on Wednesday night when she was quizzed on this very subject, said more than once that the important thing was for children and young people to enjoy sport. Being competitive was not enough.
Frankly, I am struggling to see where this decision fits with the notion of an Olympic legacy. We’ve spent gazillions on the Olympics, showing our young people that sport is fun, and aspirational, and hard work. It should be a universal right to try it out in school even if your parents aren’t rich enough or interested enough to take you along to the local gym club or judo club or athletics track, or get you out on a bike at weekends.
We talk about education being something society wants to be transmitted from one generation to the next: don’t we want to encourage younger people to do something many adults are failing to do, and take enough exercise, at the very least, to stop us using the finite resources of the NHS?
I agree with Mr Gove that head teachers can be trusted. But head teachers can also be backed into corners: do they go for all-round sport, or dump it for the less-able kids going into the GCSE years whose results need to be boosted? What about giving some of those who struggle in academic classes the time and space to be good at subjects where perhaps they have more natural ability?
This week, I’ve gone out for a half-hour stagger up the hills and returned to ask my kids if I missed any medals in my absence. I’ve then explained to them why it is actually such an extraordinary question. They don’t get it, all being under 17, and knowing only Olympic games where Team GB wins stuff.
The inspiration our schools have given to so many of our medal-winning athletes is vital, and yes, I would trust head teachers to deliver that – if they didn’t also have the push factors of exam league tables and all the rest of it. I wouldn’t have said this at 14, but I now think sport should be compulsory in school, simply to save head teachers from making decisions on uneven playing fields.
Page published: 13 August 2012