Exercise is more precious than ever. So let’s stop scaring kids off PE

When I was growing up I routinely bunked PE lessons. I saw PE as optional – it was on the timetable, but no one seemed to care if you didn’t attend. PE was for sporty kids anyway, and I wasn’t one of them. Anna Kessel is a sports writer for the Guardian and Observer.

Times have changed. We now know so much more about the value of physical activity – for physical and mental wellbeing, to promote positive body image in women and girls, to help people with depression, to engender a healthy lifestyle from an early age, to sharpen concentration and academic performance, and even to tackle the gender pay gap (research shows that women who play sport are more likely to enjoy high-flying careers).

So why is PE still treated as if it were optional? And that’s not just by tearaway teens, but by schools themselves. New research from the Youth Sports Trust has revealed that 38% of teachers have seen a drop in secondary school PE over the last five years as a direct result of exam pressures on 14- to 16-year-olds.

Predictably, this is a story of economics and privilege – those schools were primarily made up of pupils for whom English was a second language. Another teacher told me of their school “regularly pulling kids from PE to do further English lessons when PE was the only lesson they could really take full part in with limited language skills”. On a BBC 5Live phone-in on this subject on Wednesday, a head of PE from a school in the West Midlands said that underachieving year-11 students were being taken out of PE lessons for additional learning support ahead of their exams.

That’s the maddening thing. The schools with kids facing the biggest academic hurdles are often those facing the biggest cuts to their PE programme. And those are often the kids for whom extracurricular sports clubs are not an option, so when it comes to physical education school is their lifeline. Little wonder, then, that privately educated athletes are overrepresented in the Team GB medal tally, with one third of British medallists at Rio 2016 having attended fee-paying schools – five times the national average.

The National Literacy Trust uses football to encourage reluctant readers, while Sport England’s football community cohesion programme, Premier League Kicks, has seen local authorities reporting reductions of up to 50% in antisocial behaviour.

Even when children are getting access to PE, there are concerns about the quality of the lessons. Primary school teachers receive an average of just six hours’ training in delivering PE lessons – and many report feeling unassured and ill-prepared as a result, a situation exacerbated by the fact that many teachers themselves had negative experiences of PE at school.

Read the full article Exercise is more precious than ever. So let’s stop scaring kids off PE

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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