With all this Olympics stuff going on, the inevitable debate about PE in schools has raised its head and the government, predictably, and oh so tediously, have started wittering on about the importance of competitive sports. David Cameron, as you may have seen, has criticised the “all must have prizes” culture (if such a thing actually exists) in primary schools and scrapped two hour targets for PE saying that some schools were using that time for “Indian dance.” They are now planning to introduce competitive sports, team games like football, cricket, netball etc, to primary school children in the national curriculum. (Don’t get me started on the scrapping of the School Sports Partnerships – sucha mistake.)
Any hopes I had that E would not be subject to the ritual humiliation and abject misery of PE that I had at school have effectively been scuppered. I’d heard good things about what goes on in school sports these days – dance, aerobics, equal opportunities (I wasn’t allowed to play cricket or football when I was at school) and thought it sounded great. My memories of sport at school, like lots of people, are not positive. Aged six, I forgot my vest for PE and myself and another friend were made to run around topless (I realise there’s nothing to show at that age but it was still humiliating). At about the same age, I didn’t do very well in sports day races and got laughed at and teased by schoolmates (yes Carolyn Fairbrother, I’m talking about you). Cameron says losing is character building. I assume he’s not had to comfort a distraught six year old who’s upset at being laughed at. (I still remember it 30 years later – has it built my character or just made me scared of doing anything in public in case people laugh?)
Of course it gets worse once you’re at high school. Our PE teachers were the stereotypical screeching, hard faced bitches of folklore. It only occurred to me that they could have been different when I was buying trainers last year. The shop assistant and I were discussing school sports, and I said I was put off and gave up as soon as possible because I wasn’t any good. He said he was no good either but his teacher spent time telling how he could improve. This is, of course, what you might expect of a teacher.
I’m not knocking the teachers. I have no idea how it works and how their performance is measured. I was encouraged in other subjects that I was good at and forced to improve the subjects I was bad at. By the time my sister went through the same school, she was encouraged to drop the subjects she wasn’t good at – such was the deference to league table positions. So perhaps the PE teachers were measured on netball tournament success. But surely they could have made it more enjoyable?
The lessons I remember enjoying were ones where the teachers weren’t there and we messed around. Surely it was better for our health to play ping pong with two balls per table, racing round the hall to hit them, and having a whale of a time, than if we’d been forced to remember the rules and played under close supervision, picking up on our mistakes? And whose idea was it to make the kits so horrible? Gym knickers and scratchy hockey socks. Surely pupils these days can just wear regular tracksuits and tshirts?
This is where Cameron misses the point. Again. Listening to gold medallists Jessica Ennis and Laura Trott talk, they both stressed that enjoyment of the sport was the main reason for their success. It wasn’t the competitive nature of it, it was that it was fun. I’ve always watched the Olympics and when they weren’t on I watched and cheered on other sports. Despite that, I’ve never wanted to compete myself – I’m not inspired by other people’s success in that way. I suspect that many people are the same. I do, however, know lots of people, myself included, who like to stay fit and exercise and have found enjoyable ways of doing that – whether that be running, cricket, zumba, swimming or dancing. The enjoyment factor is the unifying thing.
This doesn’t fit with the Tory mantra. They are curiously joyless. The prospect of pupils doing something that is fun which also happens to be beneficial to health seems to have passed them by. But I maintain that it’s best to keep people active and enjoying themselves, no matter what it is at, rather than forcing them to take part in something they hate and which they will give up at the first opportunity? That way we remain happy and healthy as a whole, and those who are compelled to take their enjoyment to a higher level, can do so. We’ll be watching, and cheering, from the sides.