Peter Peacock, Scotland’s education minister, is currently reviewing a proposal to make compulsory in Scottish schools a minimum of two hours a week of physical education or physical activities. Given that 15% of secondary students are obese or very overweight, it goes without saying that the health of the nation requires that far more young people are involved in significantly more physical exercise.
PE can undoubtedly be made attractive and inclusive. In my school first and second year students all have two periods a week of PE, a minimum of one hour fifty minutes, and third and fourth year students have a minimum of two hours forty five minutes. All our third and fourth year students pursue a certificated (Standard Grade) PE course and a phenomenal 85% of fourth years were entered for Standard Grade PE with 98% of the entrants gaining an award. All of that is a credit to a superb department which not only provides a varied and stimulating programme but creates the ethos and the relationships whereby the vast bulk of our students see PE as an area in which they can succeed. It should perhaps be added that as a purpose built community school with our own superb swimming pool, three gymnasia, squash courts, a fitness suite and many other assets we are well equipped for the task.
Despite that, the concept of two hours compulsory PE throughout the school curriculum raises several questions which the strongest advocates of the proposal have failed to answer. For the primary school and the earliest years in secondary we could easily sustain two hours of PE. For most in the middle school it is still possible but can we force adults to be healthy? After young people have passed the compulsory school leaving age, surely the concept of insisting that they pursue certain subjects at school, irrespective of choice or inclination is absurd? Do we want to chase our 16 year olds out of school and into the FE colleges by insisting on continuing to treat them as immature children incapable of making informed choices? Let me add, English teacher though I am to trade, that I take exactly the same attitude to those who say that even for fifth and sixth year students, English – or maths – should be compulsory.
There is also the issue of the admittedly small minority for whom PE is quite simply torture. We may be seeking to raise self-esteem but, until we’ve done so for all, there will be cohort of students for whom physical exercise in public is an embarrassment which they contemplate with fear. Just as I would never force a child with a stutter to read aloud in my class, I will not use my authority to impose the agony of public sport on an embarrassed, reluctant child. There are also practical problem. If two hours of PE is to become compulsory, what is to drop out? It is always easier for politicians to add to the responsibilities of schools than to subtract from them. In the middle school in Scotland there is an explicit understanding (although no legal compulsion) that English, maths, a modern language, a social subject and science will be studied by all. The one legally compulsory aspect of the curriculum is religious education. Which of these will Mr Peacock reduce or abandon? I’ll offer him a deal which would be supported by many teachers and by many others in our increasingly secular society: compulsory PE in; compulsory RE out.
Another option of course is to lengthen the school week by two hours but maintain teachers’ present contracts, including working hours and teaching hours, but enhance the teaching workforce by just over 7% to deliver the extra hours. Parents might well like an extra two hours of schooling a week but would the finances would add up? And would there be PE teachers to deliver? While parents might welcome schools acting as child-minders for an extra two hours a week, it is questionable whether their priority would be the insertion of two hours of extra PE. Peter Peacock himself recently stated, as he looked at strategies for developing flexible curricula and parental involvement: “I see this approach promoting more flexible arrangements for meeting expectations appropriate to each school and the wishes of that parent body. Parents will be thoroughly involved in shaping the new arrangements and in regularly reviewing them with the school to check that they are the right ones and are working well.” What then if parents said, no, not extra PE, but extra English or extra skills-for-work courses or extra art? Compulsion and parental choice make poor bed-fellows.
The final question to be asked about this proposal flows from the Scottish Executive’s other great initiative on the curriculum, mentioned by Peter Peacock in the above statement, flexibility. Schools are being encouraged to move to a more flexible curriculum, one better shaped to the needs of all young people, with more options and more choices rather than the stultifying strait-jacket in which we are told young people have been imprisoned. Now it worth quoting some of the aims of the Executive’s Curriculum for Excellence:
- Greater choice and opportunity, earlier, for young people
- More skills-for-work options for young people
- More space in the curriculum for work in depth, and to ensure that young people develop the literacy, numeracy and other essential skills
- More space for sport, music, dance, drama, art, learning about health, sustainable development and enterprise.
If we want the next generation to grow into healthy adults, physical education, sport, and physical activities including dance and outdoor education, are all essentials which will be delivered primarily, although not exclusively, through school. The instinct, once a social problem has been identified, to see the solution as an addition to the school curriculum betrays a terrible lack of political rigour and a ludicrous exaggeration of schools’ impact in delivering the panacea to the identified problem of the month.
An honest debate is now required as to what can be squeezed into a crowded curriculum in which flexibility and choice are themselves priorities and guiding principles. Perhaps most importantly however, for the long-term health of PE and sport, as well as for the long-term health of our young people, the question should not be posed in terms of making PE compulsory across a greater stretch of the curriculum. Rather it should be about making PE, sport and other physical activities, so attractive, both in terms of their content and in terms of how they are delivered, that more and more young people choose to pursue them and thus establish genuinely healthy lifestyles which will sustain them long after they leave school.
The above article was first published in SecEd on 11 May 2006.