Education: Do most primary schools offer poor physical education?

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The Independent Online
The political surge, once again, is literacy and numeracy, and the Government's announcement that it wants schools to focus on them is welcome. Of course I think these skills are important and so do most primary schools in the country. There are some schools that excite their pupils through the arts and humanities, thank goodness, but they too are teaching literacy and numeracy skills through these subjects, so why do politicians think not enough time is spent on the basics?

Basics are learnt through all curriculum areas. The idea of spending a further one hour on a "structured" session of literacy and numeracy could mean more drudgery for children in the 5-to-11 age range. Youngsters of this age learn much through being active and interested in practical lessons, but because teachers are under pressure from the core subjects, plus "structured" hours of literacy and numeracy, time spent teaching physical education, including games, gymnastics, dance and athletics, is diminishing.

The Youth Sport Trust, assisted by the Sports Council with funding from the Lottery and British Telecom, is trying to improve the teaching of games, but it will take a more universal approach to make noticeable in- roads in the local primary schools.

Out of almost 100 primary schools I visited over the past two years, only nine of them had a good physical education curriculum in practice. Consequently, if this observational research is taken seriously, about 90 per cent of primary schools in the north of England have an unsatisfactory physical education programme. Ofsted inspection reports may not support this because there are very few physical education experts in primary inspection teams.

The lack of meaningful activity in the physical education lesson has left me frustrated and worried for the future physical well-being of our youngsters. I have observed primary-school pupils standing or sitting around during gymnastic sessions, but more so in games of rounders and cricket. There has been an odd cartwheel in the outfield, a little karate in the covers and daisy-chain making in the queue to bat, but very few children could catch, throw or strike a small ball effectively.

Should not teachers teach these skills before playing a game? Should not teachers differentiate and offer different types of balls and bats to suit the many different needs? Should not opportunities be given to practise individual, partner and small-group skills before rushing children into playing games such as cricket (usually on inappropriate surfaces) and rounders? Wouldn't it be tremendous if all seven-year-olds could throw, catch and strike a ball before they entered the junior school! It should be the aim of every infant teacher to help children to achieve these skills and every junior teacher to consolidate and build on the same skills so that success in games is experienced by the age of 11.

Boys acquire the basic games skills quicker because they are afforded more opportunities to play in clubs outside school, and many girls begin to feel inferior if the primary school is not aware or able to compensate. Effective mixing of the sexes is important in the primary phase so that both boys and girls can practise together and learn and value each others strengths.

Separating the sexes for games only reinforces the stereotype and is detrimental to progress. Both boys and girls perform equally well during this age range if the same opportunities are given. More after school clubs for the 5- to 11-year-olds would be beneficial to skill improvement - not just in the major games, but in other aspects of physical education such as athletics, gymnastics and dance.

In curriculum time, regular 20 to 40 minutes, depending on age and activity, of quality physical education through much more challenging teaching is required to improve standards. Unfortunately, most primary teacher training is inadequate in preparing students to teach physical education, and in- service training for teachers is sketchy because financial constraints, inspections and other priorities affect the local authorities' supporting role for physical education. These two areas need urgent attention now.

The writer is an educational consultant on physical education and an Ofsted inspector.

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