Thanks to a tweet from @heymrshallahan this week, I came across the work of the Sport and Recreation Committee in the House of Lords. Clearly, this is something I must have missed during the last couple of years when us teachers were at home watching Netflix and sunbathing in the garden. According to the committee, PE should become a core subject, signalling a radical move to improve ‘stagnant levels of inactivity.’
The committee has heard much evidence, such as from Sport England whose ‘sobering and stark’ data paints a picture of pitiful activity levels in children, reduced still further due to the pandemic. This committee is clearly concerned, and they are right to be.
For this is an area that has resonated with me for some time. In that early stage of the pandemic, when we were re-opening our schools again, we made a decision at our school that physical exercise should be a central part of our revised curriculum. I felt that the ‘catch-up’ narrative was devoid of any ambition and thought. We approached it from a different perspective.
For me, good physical health impacts directly on good mental health, and indirectly on behaviour and attitudes. This was a crucial aim as we returned from that first lockdown. During the summer of 2020, we struck a deal with the local Sports Centre. Thanks to funding from the Steve Morgan Foundation, we now have classes walking there each morning and afternoon for sports sessions, PE, gymnastics, dance etc. For a school without any grass, and little space on playgrounds, it’s been a fabulous development. All questionnaires have highlighted the positive impact – staff, pupils and parents just really, really happy. I am more than ever convinced that my original supposition – that there is a causal link between regular physical exercise and good mental health/behaviours – is correct.
Importantly, the decision to make it a priority over these last two years is also based on data. Our local area has one of the worst childhood obesity levels in the UK (over 30% of all children), and the UK has one of the worst in the world. It’s dreadful. So I’m very proud that our current Year 6 really do appear fit and in good shape. Again, there has to be a causal link.
So I think the House of Lords Committee is on to something.
But here’s the rub. As a school leader, why would you make PE a priority in the current educational climate? There is absolutely no incentive to put your eggs into this particular basket.
I remember talking to a headteacher earlier this term. She smugly asserted that she could fit all the subjects into the taught week. She spied me sympathetically when I relayed my struggle to do the same. I then went on to explain that we do 3 hours music and 3 hours PE, in addition to our faith commitment. She looked at me aghast, but also with a tinge of jealously. You do what?
And this is where the call for PE to become a core subject is so interesting. To signal a change in people’s priorities, it is necessary to make such a enormous change in the system. Ofsted’s focus on subject deep dives, including PE, is a good start, despite the sometimes tortuous focus on component parts. But it really needs the DfE to make this change. If you want better childhood sport and physical activity, you need to incentivise it and champion those who are leading the way.
Last week, we had four sporting fixtures, all fulfilled. That’s four sports teams out in the community, playing against other schools. Yet how many schools have relegated this activity to the unnecessary or superfluous, probably shielding behind Omicron anxiety?
The House of Lords would do well to note the hypocrisy of political leaders. One the one hand, they bemoan the lack of physical activity for those most under-privileged children. But on the other, they scare communities into retreating to their houses, instructing them to take cover from the various tsunamis and exponential rises. You can’t have it both ways.
Consider the private sector. It has always been brilliant at sport and PE, often handing over Saturdays and Wednesday afternoons to fixtures and training. No surprise then that many of our finest sportsmen and sportswomen, our capped players, our Olympians, mostly benefitted from this kind of education. But why should it be only the right of these pupils, youngsters who are already advantaged?
To make such change, we do need radical action. And it won’t be easy. Various other subject professional organisations will appear from the shadows and explain why music should be fundamental to school timetables, or why computing is the future of children’s education. And who knows, they might have a case.
However, as far as I know, we only have one committee in the House of Lords looking at this, and it’s in PE.
And I think they might be right.