Harriet Walker: I blame the psychotic gym teachers

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The Independent Online

As a pupil whose abilities lay very much beyond the sports pitch, I recall distinctly the contempt and cruelty with which I was treated by those in charge of my supposed physical wellbeing. The problem with sport in schools is that it's precisely that – not exercise, not health, not calisthenics, but sport. And sport is not for all.

Particularly not for teenage girls, it seems. I can well understand that. As an avowed hater of physical activity, I was probably not the easiest to teach. Teenage girls have all manner of imagined ailments and impediments to exertion, from periods to boyfriend troubles to elaborate hairdos, and many of them are content to stand deep field and text their mates throughout a PE lesson.

My problem with PE was not that I didn't need to keep fit – I did, and we all do. But it strikes me that PE is the one discipline which takes absolutely no steps whatsoever to try to be accessible to those who find it difficult. Bad at maths? Try these basic formulae. Can't manage your French homework? Let's simplify things a bit. Can't catch, run, throw or jump? Stand in that corner and some bone-headed "teacher" will encourage the strong kids, the ones with muscles, swishy ponytails and no futures, to laugh at you.

It takes a special sort of sadist to teach PE. Being a small-town tyrant seems to come with the territory. We all know the sort of crass, deep-voiced, illiterate provincial idiot who could make your life hell. The sort who would make you play netball on a sprained ankle, who would stand there in the January fogs wearing a coat, hat and scarf and scream at you as you dared to shiver in your gymslip. And that's before you consider those members of the PE department who lingered that bit too long in the changing room, or burst in accidentally as girls disrobed, or corrected racket technique by brushing against fledgling busts.

The problem with PE is easily solved however. As we learned from The Apprentice, the fitness industry is a massive machine, constantly evolving and reinventing itself. There are thousands of options for those who want to keep fit and schools should take note.

Who wants to play rugby in freezing mud? Who gives a toss about learning how to bat in cricket? These are hobbies, not life skills. From aerobics to zumba, trampolining to tap dance, if school sports departments offered a bit more flexibility – and ditched the psychopaths – they might find their young charges rather more responsive.