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Are PE lessons awesome?

Writing on the day of the London Marathon 2017, Hilary Moriarty discusses the revolution of PE lessons

Posted by Alice Savage | June 05, 2017 | Sports & Leisure

You can’t travel any time-distance to 2017 without being aware you have lived/are living in revolutionary times. Consider education – who could have seen its current shape and concerns 20 years ago? Which is amazing, given it’s still – presumably – trying to do much the same thing. Or not. How disheartening recently to ask a primary school teacher if she thought all her Year 6 pupils would leave in the summer, ready for secondary education, competent readers.  She said, “No.” The answer was slightly longer than that, and involved references to home, parents, the joys of reading and the difficulty of conveying these when children were more interested in their phones, and of course, the innate ability of the children at the point of admission. But it was still a no. And there was me, thinking that teaching children to read was the most important thing a primary school could do. I must be behind the curve. There has been another revolution, putting well-being before literacy. I’m a big fan of well-being, honestly, but still... I actually believe your well-being is likely to be seriously damaged if you arrive in a secondary school unable to read.

But I digress, because what I really wanted to explore was the revolution in school PE.  Never mind the classroom, what about the field, and the pitch, and the court? I was there when it was – honestly? – dreadful, with PE departments quite happy to wave away students as they left school barely touched by, let alone made expert in, any kind of physical exercise. The sporting equivalent of non-readers, because school sport was mostly about enabling those who arrived already good at it – football, tennis, swimming – to get better and feature in teams. Think Kes, and weep for lost opportunity. 

Happily, I am here to see the fruits of change and massive improvement.

It would be hard not to see massive improvement in the facilities which independent schools have conjured, even in hard times, for their pupils. I was one of the heads who wheedled and whined and begged and pleaded and ran a fundraising appeal – and even, Lord help us, did a bungee jump! – to find the hard cash to provide my small independent school with a proper sports hall. It moved us on from the kind of gym which was lined with bars, and which had a stage upon which few performers could be heard because of the poor acoustics, and into the 21st century.

It would be hard not to see massive improvement in the facilities which independent schools have conjured, even in hard times, for their pupils

The new sports hall was wonderful – smaller than the PE department wanted (of course) so no viewing gallery and no gym machinery for rowing or mill-treading – but it did enable curriculum change, introducing GCSE and A-level PE, acknowledging that these skills also need to be nurtured and celebrated, along with the old school gifts for maths and Latin and the like. The school – would you believe – already had a riding school – and yes, pupils brought their horses, sometimes from as far away as Germany – so to some extent even then, 15 years ago, we were ahead of the game in which schools build on individual as well as team talent. Everyone recognises that if you want a successful and happy adult life, there are more paths to take than the one labelled ‘lawyer’ or ‘doctor’.

It’s a very far cry from my own pupil experience of six years making zero progress in netball or hockey or tennis or swimming. For the latter, no wonder: I think in my six years, my form was taken the two-mile walk to the nearest pool twice, and at a time when risk assessment had not been invented.  Non-swimmers were abandoned to splash in the shallow end, swimmers monopolised the teacher at the deep end. Tennis – one trip to the municipal courts (only half a mile, shorter walk) and again, one teacher shared between 30 of us. Almost all of what I know about tennis I gleaned from hours and hours of watching Wimbledon, and batting a ball against a wall. At university, meeting tennis players who had actually been coached was a shock. And of course most of them had attended independent schools. 

Netball and hockey in my grammar school were completely monopolised by team players, or those with the potential and probably autumn birthdays. Limited resources, including encouragement, were saved for those who were already halfway there – physically ‘sporty’, lean and quick and a tad aggressive, with if not hockey-playing mums, at least football-fan dads.  My one dubious hockey achievement was a completely untutored whack which broke the teacher’s ankle. We met at a school reunion 30 years later. She had not forgotten. It would have surprised her that I had gone on to represent my university at squash. The years of wall-bashing turned out to be useful.

But apart from independent schools recognising that amazing sporting facilities are instant selling-points, and differentiators of one school from another – “They all do great education – let’s go with the one with the swimming pool/dance studio/fencing arena/squash courts” – more important – and revolutionary – is the complete change of attitude and climate for all students, the inclusivity, the enthusiasm for a sporting life for all.

My one dubious hockey achievement was a completely untutored whack which broke the teacher’s ankle

It would be difficult now to write a film like Kes, in which some of the grimmest, ‘I can’t look’, moments occur in PE lessons. The teacher is brutal. Pupils are cowed and you want them to run for the hills or beat the teacher up. Now we know that sporting endeavour at any age will be hard work physically, but our attitude to that has been part of the revolution: it’s a bit ‘Bring it on!’  We see the collapsed rowers at the end of an Olympic race or the Boat Race, we see the hundreds managing mind over marathon and doing the London race, we even see Jonny Brownlee collapsing and being rescued by his brother Alistair – and we think, ‘I could do that!’ ‘I would be fitter if I did that!’ ‘I want a piece of that action!’  Because you know it’s hard – and the higher you go the harder – but look at the rewards – the joy of stopping, for one, followed by the joy of achievement, possibly from humble beginnings. If I ever manage the whole length of a swimming pool without panicking and floundering and cursing the limited horizons of my young days in the PE wilderness, you will hear the celebrations.

Medals, knighthoods and careers in the commentary box or in the rarefied world of sports comment journalism are only half the attraction – okay, three quarters.  Just as important is our new conviction that to participate in sport, at whatever level, is wonderful and life-affirming and friendship-making, as you toil together to get from A to B or from a six-hour marathon to under four hours. My dentist is so excited by having achieved a time of 3.59.59, he is almost dangerous with the drill. But infectiously so – you want to celebrate with him, leaping out of the chair and punching the air – ‘Awesome!’

And that, my friend, is revolutionary. 

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former head and former National Director of the Boarding Schools Association

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