Why a policy of 2 hours a week alone is not nearly enough to get children to take up sports.
A lot of political pies have been thrown in this debate: Should schools be compelled to get children to do 2 hours a week minimum of sporting activity? It’s a policy that sounds great to a political communications wonk, but what does the policy look like in detail?
One of the things that most of us have in common is that we had to do some sort of sporting exercise during our school days. Sometimes willingly (football or trampolining in my case) and sometimes unwillingly (cross country in my first year on freezing winters mornings). Yes, freezing November mornings with the thought of cross-country first thing.
Sportswise I was quite lucky. I was one of those kids who, while not being outstandingly brilliant at any particular sport wasn’t outstandingly rubbish at any of them either. When a push came to a shove I could hold my own in the short term, but was never going to be challenging for a regular place in the school team – not that I had the drive to. I seldom played sport for competitive reasons. My desire to play sport was for an even more basic reason: Fun.
I’m not going to pretend teaching is the same today for PE teachers as it was during the early/mid 1990s when I was at school. My own teacher training in 2011 taught me this in the world of classroom-based teaching. Huge strides have been made since the late 1990s in teacher training, but has that fed through onto the playing fields and more importantly into the mindsets of the parents?
Stereotypically there’s something ‘sadistic’ about being a PE teacher. Getting a group of young people out onto the playing fields against their will and crushing their young spirits with a dose of exercise in freezing conditions wearing ill-fitting clothing made out of itching sacks normally used to store wheat. It’s hardly the stuff to encourage anyone. Have any schools worked with children to design new PE kits that are both suitable for exercise AND are ones that children want to wear?
Then you’ve got the issue of communal changing at a time when children are going through puberty – a time when people are possibly at their most insecure about their bodies in their entire lives. Decades of underinvestment left most schools without decent changing and showering facilities.
Then there’s the problem of the choice of activities – or all too often, the ‘lack of’ choice. One of the things that emerged from Twitter debates is why some sports were ‘men only’ and others were ‘women only’. It was the same with school with me. Why weren’t the girls allowed to play football? Why weren’t the boys allowed to play hockey? Not only that, there were some sports seen as ‘autumn sports’ (for the boys, rugby), ‘spring sports’ (football) and ‘summer sports’ (cricket) – something straight out of the late 19th Century in the grand scheme of things.
Does cricket ensure that most children who play it at school get exercise from it?
Because once it comes to a game of cricket, the reality for too many children (unless you have decent bowlers and batsmen) is that you’re standing around doing very little. If your bowler cannot bowl, most people are standing around on a playing field doing very little Hardly exercise. That’s not to say I don’t like cricket or that it should be banned – after all, I went to a test match last year. It’s more the case of coming back to some first principles around sport – and exercise in general.
Playing fields, the Olympic Games…the clues are not hard to find
“Playing” and “Games” imply some sort of pleasure is derived from the activities concerned. We ‘play’ football just as we ‘play’ computer games. The verb is the same. It’s just that different parts of the body and mind are exercised in different ways.
“Children shouldn’t be going to school to play!!! They should be going there to learn and to exercise! No wonder standards are falling! Wasn’t like that in my day! None of those trendy teaching methods from woolly liberals in sandals!
It’s one of those strange paradoxes. On one side we’d like our children’s school days and childhoods to be the best days of their lives, yet at the same time we seem to do everything we possibly can to ensure that they are not. Whether it’s the forced running in shorts on cold winters days to examining all of the fun out of subjects children have a passion for, no wonder some children turn away from things that they might actually otherwise like.
“The only way to get children to exercise is to shout loudly at them and to threaten them with the cane! Worked in my day and look at how I turned out!”
One of the best ways to exercise is to find an activity that you enjoy where it doesn’t feel like exercise when you’re doing it. As an adult, this ended up being dancing. For others it could be something like hill-walking. Some people get a buzz playing team sports, others get their buzz co-operating with a partner, others prefer exercising alone say in a gym.
When it comes to finding out what are the most suitable forms of exercise, the best thing people – and children can do is to try them out (more than once so as to get a feel for it!) and make their decisions accordingly. But how many people and children do this? How many schools and wider institutions offer this? How many of the latter 2 have decent facilities to offer these? How accessible are they for people with varying levels of health and abilities? How do you help people overcome psychological barriers?
If exercise is the answer, what is the question?
…and do the policies that flow from ‘exercise is the answer’ align with other government policies? Numerous administrations have been slammed for the sell-offs of playing fields. The Coalition has also been criticised because of the removal of the duty to have 2 hours a week minimum sporting activities for school children. As I’ve alluded to above, having 2 hours timetabled doesn’t mean that children will get 2 hours of exercise. The problem the Coalition has is that there’s no comprehensive strategy to explain what it’s trying to achieve and how it’s trying to achieve it with regards to health and exercise. All too often, other policies end up undermining such drives. The same was the case with Labour pre-2010. With the Coalition the cuts to local council budgets is having a devastating impact on local voluntary organisations and the provision of health and leisure facilities. Prices at the latter will inevitably have to go up, with predictable results on accessibility. Labour’s obsession with PFI and the badly-drawn-up contracts for new schools mean that the new facilities are prohibitively expensive for those that should have easy access to them.
So…where does this leave us?
In a confused state.
I’m sure that a whole host of sports will see a surge of interest on the back of the Olympics and Paralympics. I hope so – especially given all of the taxpayers money spent. It would be foolish not to wish for such a positive legacy. Why spent £10billion only to wish for failure? (Other than to see the political establishment with egg on its face – but it’s still a hefty price tag).
The power of information
Just as with public transport, people are more likely to use sporting facilities if they know they are there, if they know what is on and if they know they will get a friendly welcome. On the latter, it’s one of the things that gyms try to use as a selling point but in my experience of several, always fall down upon when it comes to delivery.
Are local areas ensuring that there’s a platform that provides a comprehensive, updated and accessible information on what’s happening where? Getting such a platform up and running for me is essential – one where different groups and organisations can upload their events, classes and term calendars (such as On The Wight), as well as having on the same website a comprehensive guide to the various groups and societies that are putting on these activities. (E.g. Cambridgeshire.net).
The hard bit is then persuading people to come along.
Remember your first day at school?
One of the most nerve-wracking experiences I have had – and still have – is turning up to a new place for the first time. Evening class, exercise class, conference, new work place…bag of anxiety. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
At previous organisations and societies that I’ve volunteered for, I’ve made it my business to make new people feel welcome and involved early on. In my book that was – and is part of the responsibility of helping out. It’s not just a case of saying “Hello, welcome, here’s a sheet with more info, any questions come and grab me!”, it’s far more than that. Finding out their name and how far they have come from for a start.
One of the things that worked really well during my dancing days was things like taking groups of dancers (who otherwise did not know each other) over the road for drinks after a class, or to invite them to other events that were being put on. Doing so created both goodwill and a critical mass of people to help ensure succession of the societies concerned after I had moved on.
For both children and adults, exercise is more than being just about sport. You’re building a community through shared activities – in this case one that involves some sort of physical activity that is also enjoyable.
If you want people to exercise, the activities concerned need to be:
Don’t expect people to take up exercising en masse if you’ve got a very limited set of activities available. What may make you tick won’t necessarily be the case for others
Easier said than done, but people won’t come if they cannot afford the sessions or the equipment and clothing required. Is there any way you can make second-hand equipement available to others or ask those who can afford it to donate?
This could range from being accessible to people with disabilities to being accessible to people who live in rural areas or people not easily served by public transport. The challenge for local authorities is whether they can make public transport routes align with where community facilities are, and make bus/train information available as part of co-ordinated publicity.
In most cases you are dealing with absolute beginners, not elite experts. What may work with the latter won’t necessarily work with the former. The emphasis needs to be on fun. That doesn’t mean the teacher saying “This is fun!” over and over again.
This may not be the case for everyone – some might want to keep their head down and plough on with the activity concerned. But for the rest of us, does the activity concerned allow new members to get to know each other both during and outside of timetabled classes? Are there other linked activities or special events being put on by the organisation or by a related one. Take ballroom dancing – what’s the point of learning to dance like that if you’re not going to go to a ball? Maybe you play badminton or five-a-side football. Are there any local competitions that you can take part in? Perhaps there is a demonstration on by some experts in their martial art that a group of you can go along to and watch.
If you can start tying up some of these strands together, maybe, just maybe we can get more people active.
[UPDATE TO ADD]
Once you have broadened your pool of people who have increased their physical fitness, then from that pool you potentially have your stars of the future. The training and coaching methods to push for ‘elite performance’ are not necessarily the same as getting those unfit to try new sports.
A more active population also increases the likelihood of a more knowledgeable population around physical activities – not just sport. This increases the support and sustainability of those organisations that run them as more people take part. And from those activities – whether the individuals taking part or the parents, friends & relatives…may be the medal winners of the future.