So on the day that Mervyn King warned the double-dip recession could drag on for another three years and George Osborne promised to focus on the economy “110%” (he really did say that), what David Cameron wanted to talk about was PE in schools. Capitalising on the Olympic success that has nothing to do with him, the Prime Minister unveiled his new strategy for boosting the nation’s wealth by winning record quantities of gold. He wants sport in state schools to be more like it is at Eton. He told LBC Radio we need “more competition, more competitiveness, more getting rid of the idea all-must-win-prizes and you can’t have competitive sports days”.
Where did this ‘all-must-win-prizes’ myth about state schools come from? You hear it a lot from privileged right-wingers for whom the idea of real equality of opportunity is so threatening they shout it down with the lie that the left wants surgeons with one GCSE in textiles. It certainly wasn’t my experience of the state education system. It’s true that at university I was struck that my independently-educated peers seemed to have genuinely competed with their chums over Latin grades whereas at my school I’d felt the pressure to avoid the swot label by being scruffy, scowly and not actually very swotty. But the one area where competition ruled, both at my primary and secondary schools, was sport. It was horrible.
Yes we always did that thing where two strapping athletes got to pick the teams; yes my ranking in this Darwinian popularity contest throughout twelve years of compulsory education was consistent if nothing else; but the real trouble began when the ‘game’ started. Team sports, we’re told, are wonderful for the social and moral development of the young – and let’s not forget their eventual employability – because they teach children to cooperate, to share, to work for the common good. Really? So what about when one mal-coordinated loser is letting the team down? The brutal truth, as any wolf-pack knows, is that sometimes it’s in the common good to leave the weaklings for dead – or tear them to shreds so they don’t ruin things for everyone else.
The ghastly team-picking pantomime doesn’t even get the feeble to lift their game. I tried hard. Or at least I did for the first few years. When that didn’t help I tried the armour of feigned indifference (doesn’t work either). But I find encouragement and support to be more motivating than derision – I’m funny like that. And anyway the people who were picked last were weak in a wide range of ways. Of course the chronically slow, wheezy or chubby weren’t top of the league – but neither were the children who were unpopular for other reasons. At my husband’s school the boy who was always picked last had big glasses and was poor. Nice.
My overriding PE memories are of scathing comments going unchecked by teachers – indeed sometimes coming from teachers – and, as anyone who’s ever faced low-level bullying would recognise, the constant feeling of being unwelcome. Adult bullies usually manage to save the eye-rolling until their victims’ backs are turned, children don’t bother with such niceties.
The sad thing is that now, as an adult, I understand how important exercise is to staying healthy. I mean really important. Last month a report in The Lancet suggested a lack of exercise causes as many deaths as smoking. And in this country the people most likely to die from inactivity and obesity are the poorest. Now I’m really happy that the UK has done so incredibly well in this Olympics. Honestly I am. I’ve never enjoyed watching any sporting event before (and yes that is because the legacy I got from school PE was to hate sport) but, like many nay-sayers, I’ve been sucked in by London 2012. From Danny Boyle’s left-field, self-effacing opening ceremony; to how gratifyingly wrongly the Daily Mail read the public’s mood with its nasty little ‘plastic Brits’ campaign; to, of course, the magnificent achievements and the gracious humility of our competitors. It’s been a joy to watch. But, let’s be honest, the nation’s future sporting success is not the most important issue here – not for schools anyway. Their job is to make sure that everyone picks up the habits they need to lead a healthy life. And to make sure that no-one, no matter how unlikely they are to ever win a race with more than one competitor, is put off exercise for life by the miserable imprint of how enforced school ‘games’ made them feel.
Are schools really incapable of making physical activity appealing to those children who will never be man of the match? We all know how to play. Games – real games – are about the experience of playing – nothing more. We all have that capacity in us, although for some it’s been dormant for a very long time. As a teenager who loathed PE and everything that (I thought) it stood for, I still remember having a whale of a time doing physical warm-ups at a Saturday drama club. Dashing around playing ‘stuck in the mud’ and such-like was sometimes, although I wouldn’t have admitted it, more fun than the acting bit. The difference was the atmosphere. The ethos of community drama groups is one of participation and trust – absolutely the opposite of competitiveness. That’s what I’d like to see more of in PE lessons in schools. Of course there should be opportunities for the super-sporty to compete against other schools but the nurturing of the strong shouldn’t be at the expense of the weak. If the culture of PE departments is all about finding super-stars of the school hockey team or the next Jessica Ennis – then we’ll create a two-tier system where all of the teachers’ expertise is focussed on the kids who are probably going to stay fit their whole lives no matter what because they love it, while the children whose parents have never kicked a ball around with them, the ones who don’t have any adult in their lives setting an example of the benefits of an active, healthy lifestyle, feel alienated and ignored.
It’s a disgrace when talent is wasted. Just as the brightest children need to be challenged to excel, so too do the most gifted athletes. Different children are motivated in different ways. For some competition with peers is a useful spur. But, if you listened to the stories of high-fliers in all walks of life, I think you’d most often find that their greatest competitors are themselves. Yes the athletes want a gold medal; the novelists want to win the Booker Prize; the research scientists want to be the first to make the great discoveries; but you don’t reach the point where you’re anywhere close to achieving such things if you’re too busy watching what other people are up to. The real motivator is the knowledge of what you know you’re capable of. And that sort of confidence comes from, amongst other things, top-class teaching – not an education culture that just leaves the wolf-pack to spur you on. If David Cameron was really serious about helping the next generation of athletes – he’d listen to what the current generation has to say. Is their success down to having had the good old-fashioned opportunity to kick other people down on the way up, or would they rather call for more resources, more specialist coaches oh and maybe for successive governments to stop selling off school playing fields?