Proper PE: More health, less sport.

Recently the Sport and Recreation Alliance produced a report on the social value of sport (you can read it here), in which several writers outline the positive outcomes to be gained through increased sports participation. The case was made in particular for sport as a tool for righting the wrongs of inactivity and obesity. I'm sure there’s nuance in the writers’ minds but what is down on the paper strikes me as unduly imbuing sport with an almost miracle-working capacity.

For example, on page 9 of the report the writer declares, with reference to improving the health and fitness of young people in the UK, ‘It can be done. All we need is the right sport’. I could hardly disagree more. I think we need to stop pinning our hopes on sport, and start talking about the much broader, and much more accessible options to people who don't want to play sport.

Public Domain.

It got me thinking about how and why this idea of sport-as-elixir-to-health persists. So, I turned first to my own practice and found a clue.

I am currently teaching a unit at my College as part of the Level 3 BTEC in Sport which is called PE and the Care of Children and Young People. Apart from the fact that I have to revamp all the presentations and content every single year due to the relentless curriculum and government changes, it’s a unit that I enjoy teaching. Some of the students are thinking about going into teaching, and others will be coaching and leading others in teacher-type capacity, so it’s of relevance to them.

I asked them recently to decide what they would include in the PE curriculum were they given a blank slate. I gave them minimal instruction in advance and left the task open-ended because I had a hunch - which turned out to be correct - that they would have significant difficulty in moving away from a very traditional and fixed view of what school PE should look like. I asked them to come up with 6 key curriculum emphases, and, with some exceptions, almost every student pairing included a list of sports. Not activities, not health outcomes, not learning objectives, but sports: football, hockey, netball, cricket, and so on. The same old stuff.

This is no surprise really; it enabled us to have good discussion about the assumptions and biases of many of us in the ‘Sport and Active Leisure’ sector. I've noticed that we tend to have great difficulty in the PE world differentiating between PE and sport. We - me included - so easily slip into using the terms PE and sport as synonyms, and I think it’s counter-productive. If we can carefully pick these two apart and see how they work, we might make headway towards a better solution to the nation’s health woes.

Sport is not PE, and PE is not Sport. Sport means competition, sport produces hierarchy, sport is meritocratic, and the point of sport is to win. None of these things are wrong in and of themselves but it is crucial to understand that they appeal only to a select group of people. They appeal to the very people who tend to go on to become PE teachers and repeat the formula for the next generation. They appeal to the kinds of people who work and write for the Sport and Recreation Alliance. As a consequence there seems to be a bias towards emphasising the so-called positive social outcomes of sport. The problem is of course that despite this repeated emphasis these outcomes continue to elude us as a nation.

The ‘sport-is-the-key-to-health’ trope needs to be jettisoned. It only works for some. But when the government department with responsibility is called the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, you know there’s a long road to walk. Here’s to a Department for Culture, Media and Physical Education.

School PE, in its proper and purest form, is not about sport. Sport doesn't even have to feature. School PE should be about health, about experiencing the freedom and joy of movement, about personal triumph, about play and physicality. You can do it through sport sometimes, but strictly you don't have to. What is essential though is that the obsession with winning is toppled from its position of primacy, and a great way to do this is to stop endlessly teaching sport.

So, I believe a critical element in engaging more kids nationwide to be active and thrive physically and physiologically is to do less Sport. Instead they should be doing more - or at least better - PE. In PE no scores need to be kept and no goals need to be scored. Just teach them to enjoy moving.

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