Andrew Cushing argues the case for a new programme of physical education in schools
Is Gordon Brown’s proclamation that there will be five hours of sport in schools another example of him making a statement without first considering the issues, of him grabbing a headline, a simple failure to understand the subject and having been poorly advised, or a genuine attempt to get the nation active? My perception is that it is probably all of them. Further, historical reference suggests that this latest government declaration represents a complete reversal of previous Labour policy – it was their drive to comprehensive education and the dissolution of the grammar schools that purged the timetable of ‘games’ in the afternoons. The 1960s and ‘70s brought an unprecedented erosion of time devoted to physical activity in the timetable, largely as a result of a failure by those charged with safeguarding this important element of children’s development to engage in philosophical debate with respect to ‘value’. Fast forward to the 21st century and those currently ‘responsible’ have sought to claw back education time by arguing to government that the nation’s ills in the sports arena, or with respect to obesity, are to do with children not playing enough sport in schools. This is not only a gross oversimplification of an extremely complex issue, it is palpably, to anyone with an understanding and knowledge of education, not the case; this popular argument has more to do with political expediency and agendas than the need for sound, well-constructed curricula and the needs of the individual. The failure to establish human movement as a domain or category of human achievement equable to that of knowledge undermines all attempts at adequate educational justification. Not everyone plays sport – but everybody moves. Just as each individual has a right to be ‘educated’, to become ‘autonomous, free thinking’ and capable of making morally sound decisions, they also have the right to become physically ‘autonomous’ within the physical world – we would not expect a concentration on say maths and English alone to provide rounded, ‘knowledgeable’ individuals. Similarly, we cannot expect a diet of ‘sport’ to achieve a physically literate populace. What is needed in schools, therefore, is a programme of ‘physical’ education – of which ‘sport’ might be one part – that provides for individuals to become free ‘moving’ with the capacity to engage in a range of ‘movement forms’, confident and able to move between disciplines and engage in a wide range of different activities and skills without fear of incompetence or failure but with enjoyment and a sense of enquiry. In the same way they might, for example, be able to intellectually engage with a film or a play, a book or a comic, complete an application form, manage the household budget, argue effectively for their rights or pursue a career, so also should they be physically ‘free’ to, for example, ride a bike, kick a football in the park, swim, drive, dance, juggle, build or wallpaper a wall, toss a pancake, climb a ladder, manipulate a musical instrument or simply ‘play’. Thus some might choose to engage in ‘games’, others in non-competitive recreational physical activities, others in physical challenge, others in artistic expression, others in physical wellbeing and so on. Those trumpeting the ‘sport’ claim will naturally argue that this is simply rebranding ‘sport’ by cutting it up into bits of the same – yet that displays an ignorance of what physical liberation means and the significant impact it has on the lives of people. Consider, for example, an exercise such as learning to drive. While ‘driving’ in itself may for some become a sport (e.g. motor racing, rally cross, etc.), it is for the majority in a modern society an essential life skill that is complex in nature. Learning to drive involves the mastery of a range of basic and complex skills – e.g. manipulation of objects by parts of the body (hand/foot) – hand-eye coordination, hand-foot coordination, hand-foot-eye coordination – to construct patterns of movement that allow the individual to engage with the controls of the car in space and time and thereby ‘drive’ it; these skills are perfected over time to the point that they are performed without conscious deliberation, in the same way we might engage in a conversation, using words and phrases to construct sentences. This process could be more easily managed by a great many people (and the costs incurred for lessons reduced) if they had been engaged in a curriculum of more meaningful ‘physical education’. Many such examples could be provided and the benefits to society are huge. A physically autonomous population is likely to be healthier, as many of the barriers to taking part in physical activities would be reduced; is likely to place less burden on the health service as a result; is likely to be more socially and culturally aware as greater physical engagement would create greater social interaction and is likely to achieve greater sporting success. The pro-sport lobby may well proclaim they could achieve these things by engaging young people in games and activities (sport) that develop the appropriate physical skills and social interaction. While there is no denying that sport can achieve this, the model is a narrow one – as previously stated, it doesn’t necessarily apply to all children and is akin to the ‘only English and maths’ argument. Additionally, those immersed in sport often fail to understand that many children may not like it, that they may be intimidated by games or competition, that they may have no affinity for engagement in activities they find boring and pointless. These children, as physical beings, might want to engage in some other form of physical expression that isn’t just ‘sport’, that has significant intrinsic value and that results in them being more rounded individuals.
Therefore, rather than mounting a campaign for ‘sport’ in this country, the urgent need is to establish a fully developed physical education curriculum in schools that isn’t limited to five hours of ‘sport’ but something more meaningful that embraces wider forms of movement and that approaches 50 per cent of a child’s education timetable. The result would be physically autonomous individuals who are in control of their physical self and, as with other forms of knowledge, possess a developed ability to choose what they might want to engage in. We may rejoice in the success and artistry of a Kelly Holmes, a Wayne Rooney or a Johnny Wilkinson but do we really believe that we should subject generations of children to a ‘sporting’ curriculum in the expectation that we may become a nation of slim sporting superheroes? Rather than oblige every school child in the country to engage in something designed for political expediency and which will result in less than 0.1 per cent of them achieving elite sporting success, we should be opening the door to physical liberation for all. Robert Louis Stevenson suggested “the great affair is to move”. Not everyone plays sport – but everybody moves.