Three cheers for school sport

This generation of youngsters could be the ones who halt the obesity crisis

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The Independent Online

Like its forerunners, Educating Yorkshire and Educating Essex, the latest in Channel 4’s real-life school documentary series, this time based on a tough London secondary, is gripping and often painful to watch.

In the second episode of Educating the East End, the disciplinarians among the senior staff at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow threatened a 13-year-old boy, Halil, clearly troubled by his mother’s absence from home through serious illness, with exclusion because he refused to hand over a small red ball. It left me dismayed because what this child needs is love and encouragement, not punishment.

There was, however, one member of staff who was a beacon of inspiration: the PE teacher Mr Abberley. One of his students, a promising footballer and year 10 pupil called Lamar, found his resistance to authority crushed by Mr Palumbo, the assistant headteacher. Mr Abberley’s approach was entirely different, and, I think, much more effective. The PE teacher got Lamar to help him teach football to younger students, and the improvement in the young lad was drastic.

This will not be the first or last time a difficult child or teenager has had their potential unlocked by an inspirational teacher. But there is an added power that school sport brings: when you consider that it incorporates fresh air, exercise, teamwork, confidence and, yes, competition, it is a life force. When I was a schoolgirl, PE lessons had a bad name: it was all about cold showers and even colder teachers. But that culture is mainly in the past. Schools that strive for excellence in sport as much as academic grades (par for the course in the independent sector) can produce well-rounded, healthy and happy students. When I hear the tired arguments about how school sport doesn’t suit less sporty pupils, I despair: the human body – particularly when young – is made for physical exercise, not sitting at a desk. When you look at the incredible achievements of the Paralympic and Invictus Games heroes, it is an argument that doesn’t wash. And with obesity among children rising, good school sport needs to begin early – at primary level.

For all of these reasons, it is, above all, crucial that PE is regarded as a positive, fun activity. So the decision by Nicky Morgan, the new Education Secretary, to end running laps as punishment is one to be cheered. Enforced by her predecessor Michael Gove, Morgan says that this “threatens to have a negative impact on the sport and on the view young people take of it”. The minister, who is pictured in her running kit on her Twitter profile and will take part in a half-marathon next month, wants schools to use sport to “build the resilience and character of our young people”.

Gove had little time for school sport – he tried to axe the ring-fencing for PE but, thanks to the campaigning efforts of Tessa Jowell and others, backed down and last year introduced the £150m-a-year PE and sport premium. Primary schools are now using this protected money to build all-weather pitches and other facilities. With it, this generation of youngsters could be the ones who halt the obesity crisis.

Beware rise of anti-Semitism

Gove is well-known for inspiring opposing feelings of admiration and disdain – and that’s just with me. Last Tuesday evening I watched him give a speech to the Holocaust Educational Trust annual dinner. It was chillingly, brilliantly, powerful and a reminder that he is one of the greatest orators in British politics today – but, as Chief Whip, he is no longer able to speak in Parliament. As he said: “If the nation of Bach, Beethoven and Goethe, one of the greatest centres of high culture, could have fallen into the abyss, then man truly was a wolf to man”; and yet, in the 21st century, that “darkness has become visible” – in a Belgian café, a sign reads “dogs are allowed but Jews are not”. Anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise, not just in mainland Europe but here in the UK, our supposedly tolerant society, with many using the actions of the Israeli government as an excuse to attack all Jews. With January’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps approaching, the survivors of the Holocaust are dying out, yet anti-Semitism lives on.

Farage’s double vision

How odd it must be for David Cameron to have Nigel Farage on his side for once, even if it is on the single issue of the Scottish referendum. Speaking in Glasgow on Friday, the Ukip leader warned that a newly independent Scotland would have to join the euro. Does Farage not see the irony, however, in fighting for No just as major banks are threatening to leave Scotland and retailers are warning of higher prices under independence? Does he not see that, if Britain were to leave Europe, then London’s financial services sector would collapse overnight and prices in the UK would soar because we would no longer be benefiting from the common market?

Liverpudlians’ legacy

South of the border, however, in Clacton-on-Sea, Farage can be taken more seriously. His new candidate, the defector Douglas Carswell, will face as his by-election Tory opponent Giles Watling, an actor who once starred in Bread. Watling’s selection reminded me how much I despised the 1980s “comedy” set in Liverpool. Carla Lane may have intended it as a portrayal of cuddly Scousers trying their best under Margaret Thatcher but, to me, it was the root of all the stereotypes of electricity-thieving, on-the-take Liverpudlians that coloured the rest of Britain’s perceptions of us to this day.

Yes vote may scupper Boris

If Scotland votes Yes on Thursday, will the Prime Minister resign? He says he won’t, but the pressure might be too much to bear. Would the cloud of resignation have a silver lining, though? If David Cameron quits next weekend, there would be an immediate Tory leadership election. The only eligible contenders would be sitting MPs… meaning that Boris Johnson, who is, until next May, a mere parliamentary candidate, would be barred from running. Far-fetched? I’m sure George Osborne has thought of it already.