It has only taken until half term for my 11 year old daughter to declare that she 'hates PE' at school. This is from a child who previously enjoyed PE lessons at primary school, occasionally comes running with me and has taken part in a few 'Race for Life' 5k races (completing the distance in a respectable time and running all the way).
So what has changed?
At primary school, PE seems to have been largely non competitive. Yes, there were a couple of school teams, but the majority of lessons were 'fun' rather than highly technical. The children, at her old school, were taught by non specialist teachers, so although technical elements and rules of play were covered they were not the be all and end all of each PE lesson. There was more emphasis on getting outside, moving around, having a good time etc.
PE lessons at secondary school do not seem to have changed much since I was at school (although they no longer have to wear scratchy PE knickers and heavy wool jumpers that stink like a rotting wet sheep the minute they get wet). The emphasis is on skills, skills and more skills, and then selecting the girls who are 'good at games' for various teams. For most of the girls, hockey is a new game and they are having to learn it from scratch, so I do not dispute that they need to learn the skills. In cross country they are not given any advice on how to build up to running continuously, some of them will never have run 3 miles in one go before and my daughter reported that several girls were in tears as they finished.
Education has undergone vast changes since I was in school in the 1980s. The mass media frequently talks about 'dumbing down' and it has taken me getting to this stage in my teacher training to realise that although it may look this way to the casual observer, this is not the case. The way we access knowledge has changed vastly since I was at school. When I was 11 the teacher knew everything, and acted as a gatekeeper for that knowledge. If I wanted to find something out I had to find a book with that information in it or find someone who knew the answer. It made sense for us to be able to recall lots of facts. The fact that we could recall lots of facts did not mean that we understood what the facts meant - I passed Physics A'level without much actual understanding of what it was all about, but I did have the ability to remember laws, facts and equations.
Today's children can access knowledge with a few keystroke on their mobile 'phone. What the teacher has to empower them to do is to evaluate the quality of the information they have found and enable them to manipulate their newly acquired knowledge. There is little value in students memorising dozens of equations for a science exam when they will never need to remember them again - much better to provide them with the equation and then teach them how to manipulate if for their own purposes.
And so back to PE in school. The emphasis should be on teaching children to be happy and confident in their bodies, to be able to use their PE skills to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It should not all be about getting on to the school team and therefore being 'good at games' or not getting on and therefore having a miserable time as an also ran! I never thought I would be blogging about the importance of non-competitive sport as I don't have a non-competitive bone in my body, but here I am! It strikes me that the PE department is the only place in school where Darwinian rules still apply. Schools no longer post test results on a notice board for all to see who is top and bottom of the class - this has been recognised as being demotivating for those who struggle, but in PE we have those who make the team and are 'good at games' and those who, by default, are not and who then grow to resent PE lessons and whine to try to get notes from Mum to get them 'off games.'
Maybe schools should look at the gym industry and look at what 'grown ups' do when they want to get and keep fit. Pilates, yoga, spinning and aerobics would be great skills for children to learn and totally non competitive. I don't know the answer. I just know that so many children, especially girls, seem to get turned off sport by school PE lessons. If this country is to begin to tackle the growing obesity problem we should be seeking ways to encourage enjoyment of physical activity, not making it something that children endure while at school and then give up all together as soon as they leave.