Opinion: Another great sporting summer for Britain, but PE lessons need radical improvement

With the news that children are more unhealthy and unfit than ever before it is time that PE lessons lead to a lifelong interest in sport and exercise.

Rugby during PE lessons was a uniquely torturous horror at school. It was usually cold and raining and the field always seemed to be a mass of mud and sludge. For myself and many other children it was completely wasted time. The only physical exercise we got was occasionally running away from the ball. The only team spirit we gained was the solidarity we felt in hating the sport.

I’m sure many people reading this had similar experiences in PE lessons. I didn’t hate all of PE (we didn’t have to play rugby all the time!) and I was lucky enough to have good PE teachers. But, I have a feeling that the way PE is structured by the government and schools puts some young people off sport and physical exercise. At the very least it often doesn’t do what good teaching is meant to – instil an appreciation and love of what is being taught.

On Monday, Left Foot Forward reported on a new study from the British Heart Foundation, which showed how many children risk heart disease in later life because of the sedentary and unhealthy lifestyles they lead today. Too many children spend their time in front of the TV playing videogames rather than outside and physically active.

A lot of this may be down to the individual. Many children go to school already with or without an interest in sport and this isn’t necessarily going to be changed by two hours of PE lessons a week. But, for a lot of children PE will be the first time they come across new sports and may be the only means of exercise they get.

There is strong evidence that exercise is beneficial when it comes to physical and also mental health. It is important for children now and in later life that PE lessons are not dispiriting hours spent playing sports they come to hate.

When I asked my friends about their experiences of PE a number of them had similar experiences to me.

One said, “If you enjoy sport, you’ll do it voluntarily. If you don’t, PE lessons will just put you off even more and you won’t join in.”

Another said, “I think there should be compulsory exercise but it should be off the persons choice what that is.”

Another was even more damning, “the whole school sport experience has put me off for life, much to the detriment of my health.”

Several people made the point that there should be greater choice in PE lessons. If you enjoy badminton more than basketball then you should be able to do that. If you have a fervent hatred of rugby then you shouldn’t be required to play it.

A report by the Commons Education Select Committee reflects many of the criticisms made of PE lessons.

The report said that PE lessons were not of a high enough standard in a third of primary schools and that some teachers had only been given one day of training.

There was also the issue that a lot of schools had “inadequate access” to facilities like swimming pools which meant that some children were unable to meet the national requirement of swimming 25 metres by the age of 11.

Interestingly the study also noted, “The balance of evidence to our inquiry supports the view that competition in school sport deters some young people from participating in sport and physical activity.” As one of my friends said of his time in PE, “what I didn’t really like about PE was being blamed for errors as if it cost your team the world cup.” In most other lessons being mocked and shouted at by other students for getting something wrong is not acceptable.

The Coalition has been criticised for cutting Labour’s target of ensuring that all students have at least two hours of PE a week. Indeed only under half of children do two hours of PE a week. If children already do so little exercise they should at least have to do a set amount of physical exercise within schools.

Last year we reported on the news that eight out of ten parents felt that the amount of sport and PE on offer to children was the same or had declined due to budget cuts since the London Olympic Games. If the government wants to get serious about schools sports then it has to ensure that the money is there.

Also, children may acquire an interest in a particular sport, but they are unable to pursue it outside of school. Not every parent can afford paying for sports lessons or after school sports clubs. There should be greater provision from national and local governments which is something we are not seeing in this time of austerity.

It is incredibly important that for pupils PE lessons lead to a sustained interest in sport. They are not a lot of good if you spend five years exercising two hours a week, before spending the rest of your life barely moving from your armchair.

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