Harriet Walker: Let's end the tyranny of sports jocks

Young people need to be active – so send them on walks
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The Independent Online

So now the sporty types know how it feels to be picked last for the team. Michael Gove's proposed slash in spending on sports in schools will no doubt set the proverbial cat among the pigeon-chested. May it bring to an end the dominance of sport on the national consciousness, may it allow things other than physical strength to be praised at school. May it end the tyranny of the jocks – among pupils and teaching staff alike.

Any cuts to the dwindling trickle of cash into our parched and arid schoolscape should raise concerns. But even the most caricatured of nasty Tory governments meets its cruel and sadistic match when compared to the British PE teacher. Gove has his work cut out: good luck sidelining this set of changing-room dictators.

Clearly, there is a health crisis in Britain: we are getting fatter and more sedentary. Our children need a nudge before they'll shun their Xbox for the great outdoors and opt for sweat over sweets. There is much to be said for re-educating children and parents about eating habits, for overhauling the stodgy and congealed stuff of school canteens and vending machines. Exercise is key. Exercise, that is, not sport; one is pragmatic, the other a personal choice.

The main problem with PE and sports in schools is the feeling of being forced to do someone else's hobby. And these spending cuts may go some way to stemming the self-righteousness of those whose hobby it happens to be. For children who have little to no interest in playing hockey, rugby, football or (titter) netball, PE lessons are a waste of time with no physical benefits. "Roll on rounders season," the normal kids sigh, and the bookish theorists and lab geeks cheer, "so we can stand miles away, beyond the hawkish gaze of that tracksuited Hitler who hates us because we can't catch, and talk about things that matter."

Team sports appeal to a very specific band of people who will play them regardless of whether there's a bully with a whistle making them do it; everyone else would be better off learning Latin. Young people need to be active – so send them on walks. Teach them the pace at which they should go to make a difference to their lungs, let them trot for half an hour a day – which is what the government recommends. Let them do it in their warm coats and normal shoes. By not forcing them into some archaic collection of polyester garments and making them shiver on a muddy playing field littered with the debris of nerds winded and floored by the school meathead – I mean rugby champ – we'll produce a fitter, more physically engaged generation of young people. There is no surer way of forcing normal teenagers back into their armchairs than making them do PE.

I don't do this often, but allow me to quote Norman Tebbit. "On yer bike" may not sit comfortably with the unemployment crisis, but it's the perfect slogan for sport. Put down all those unnecessary accoutrements and do some physical activity. If spending cuts means fewer hockey sticks and goal attack tabards, then so much the better. There are shortages of textbooks and stationery; most state pupils do not have their own copy of their GCSE English set texts. But there's aways a plentiful supply of tennis balls and cones.

There were things from school I knew I would never need to retain: trigonometry, for example, how to sand Perspex or make a cheesecake using only Angel Delight. PE was another thing I knew I would detest until the end of my days, and I could never understand why it was given more weight and reverence than, say, French or history.

Make these cuts and make children not only healthier but happier. Do away with sport in school like we did the cane. And in a couple of decades, when everybody's walking to work and chewing on carrot sticks, we'll wonder how we could ever have put our little poppets through something as cruel and unusual as school sports.