Schools send in the clowns to PE classes

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SCHOOL CHILDREN are to be given lessons in circus acrobatics as part of an overhaul of the PE curriculum.

The move, which follows government plans to give children over 14 the choice of whether to take part in team games, will include offering lessons in tight-rope walking, tumbling, stilt-walking and building human pyramids.

Clowns and trapeze artists are to train PE teachers in how to perform fundamental circus skills and to pass on the tricks to fourth and fifth- formers.

The former big top stars, who currently train actors and stunt men for Hollywood movies, will instruct PE teachers in aerial rope tricks, the trapeze and juggling.

Last week David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, accepted a recommendation from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to offer 14- to 16-year-olds more choice in the PE lessons they take.

This follows pressure from Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who has been arguing that children who do not like team games after the age of 14 should have the option to pursue other sports.

Senior officials from Mr Smith's department have held talks recently with former clowns and acrobats about how to introduce traditional circus routines, including unicycling and stiltwalking, into the curriculum.

The Government is worried that children, hooked on video games, are not doing enough sports because they do not see PE class as "fun".

"The idea of introducing tumbling and the low-level trapeze into PE classes is to appeal to children who are completely turned off by sports like netball," said an aide to Mr Smith. "The circus is regarded as great fun and learning circus skills should get a lot of children who feel excluded by PE involved again."

The move follows the creation of the first British degree in circus skills and a nationally recognised qualification equivalent to two A-levels.

In France, acrobatics, juggling and other big-top acts are already part of the school curriculum.

Government officials believe circus routines will help children develop skills such as balance, co-ordination and dexterity.

Circus Space, a London training centre which is coaching teenage acrobats for the Millennium Dome aerial trapeze show, has been brought in to advise the Government on developing the circus courses.

It plans to show PE teachers how to tailor dangerous circus acts, including the tight-rope, so that they can be performed by children of all abilities.

"There are lots of circus skills like pyramid building, tumbling routines such as human juggling and unicycling which children can do to enhance their physical development," said Teo Greenstreet, chief executive of Circus Space and a former clown. "You can do these routines as an entertainment but it is also serious physical exercise. The difference is you are competing with yourself rather than with others."

The additions to PE, likely to be introduced next year, follow last week's shake-up of the National Curriculum, which included the launch of morality classes and citizenship training.

The document relaxed the prescribed content of physical education, opening the way for the introduction of pursuits such as canoeing and mountaineering to be introduced.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said that learning circus skills would not be compulsory but it would be up to individual schools to offer the classes as part of a broader physical education course.

But the change is set to cause controversy among champions of traditional English sports, such as rugby, netball and hockey.

The British Association of Advisers and Lecturers in Physical Education said that big-top routines might not be appropriate sports to continue after leaving school and would offer poor job opportunities. They also questioned whether some acts, such as the trapeze or unicycling, would meet schools' strict health and safety requirements.

"I am a little sceptical about this notion of circus-type activities. Historically the British system has valued traditional games," said the association's president, Brian Blake. "We want to provide children with a broad range of activities which they can use in later life. What extended opportunities will there be to become a circus juggler or a tightrope walker? Why not give children a revolving tie and a red nose so they can have a complete outfit?"