No winners in friendly games
What's the point of physical education without competition? asks Alex Standish
A mid another summer of struggling national sporting performance, the government announced plans to improve excellence and competitive team sports in schools. Sixty million pounds of lottery money is to be spent on 600 'active school coordinators' who will aim to improve links between schools and local sports clubs, while £10 million from the Football Trust is to be invested in improving football in the community. The announcement coincided with the publication of a report by the Blairite Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) titled Sporting Lives: a vision for sport in the UK, which highlighted underfunding and underachievement.
There is no doubt that team sports and competition are not what they used to be. In many schools, PE lessons are no longer designed to put pupils through challenging experiences, gruelling cross-country races, taking heavy tackles on the rugby field, battling it out with hockey sticks. Instead many practitioners use PE as a vehicle for stress relief and building 'self-esteem', which is now defined as encouraging pupils to feel good about themselves, however little they achieve.
Having extolled the virtues of non-competitive and egalitarian education in every aspect of school life, the government now recoils from the consequences and decides to pursue 'excellence' in school sport. Yet it seems to underestimate how much the new PE values have already been incorporated.
One change in PE teaching has been the rising popularity of teaching aerobics and keep-fit, which have overtaken some more traditional school sports like netball and rugby. Of course, it is possible to teach a physically demanding course of aerobics or fitness training. But it is equally possible to teach them at an easy level where everybody can do something and enjoy it. As one teacher put it, 'It's not too different from what they do on a Saturday night'.
Traditional competitive team games are still a major focus of the curriculum, but these too have been 'softened up' by a change of approach. Jane, a teacher from Essex, explains the new role for PE: 'The emphasis on fun, enjoyment and participation means that pupils really do value it. It relieves stress as it represents one hour away from the pressure of school activity.'
But is this all that we expect pupils to achieve when they enter the gym - to relieve a bit of stress? Whatever happened to developing physical prowess? The emphasis is now on involving all team players in the game, making sure nobody is feeling left out or inferior because of their ability. Pupils are taught to be pleasant to opposing teams and rivalry is out. The outcome of competitive matches is downplayed so as not to discourage the losers.
A few years ago the Sports Council launched an initiative called Top Play, in response to previous concerns about a decline in competitive team sport in schools. But as Kate, a teacher from Tower Hamlets in London, said: 'They just kept assuring us that all that competitive sport is - when broken down - is a series of non-competitive skills. Tasks such as how to kick a ball or how to hold a bat were sold as accessible to all, and not pitting one pupil against another.' Athletics and swimming can also be taught as self-referenced activities: you are not competing against each other, but trying to improve your personal performance.
Skills development has certainly been neglected in this country. But a more powerful motivation behind the emphasis on skills teaching today is that it avoids competition. Yet as everybody knows, it is much easier to push yourself if you are competing against somebody else. By removing competition, self-referenced activities also risk removing this motivation.
Fear of 'putting pupils off' has also led to the neglect of teaching some very basic skills. Carey, a secondary school teacher from Brighton, will not teach her whole class how to do a cartwheel or a forward roll because 'they can't all do that'. Instead she uses a method called 'problem solving'. 'I shall say to them, "I want you to find a way of rotating that involves moving across three of your body parts".' According to Carey, the benefit of this is that 'it enables them to find their level within the task'. The measure of success is how pupils feel about the activity - rather than what they actually achieved.
Carey's method may enable pupils to 'find their level' - but how will this encourage any of them to achieve? If you find your own level then you are likely to stay at your own level. To move up to a higher level usually requires somebody to teach you something new and push you to achieve it. As a teacher, this is your job. It may at times be an uncomfortable experience for pupils. They may even feel humiliated if they fail. But they will never get anywhere unless they try - and they will never have the highly rewarding experience of succeeding.
Aerobics or keep-fit are not sports and can never be a replacement for competitive games. Mastering the basic skills of hockey, football or rugby is difficult and requires practice. To apply these in a game situation is even harder. Then you have to work with and coordinate a team of players to achieve the same goal. Little else that pupils do at school teaches them to take responsibility as part of a team and work towards a common goal. Jumping up and down to music may be easier on the teachers and more fun for the kids, but it is hardly a substitute for the abilities developed by competitive team games.
I want the children I teach to enjoy sport. But enjoyment itself is not an aim of PE, and neither is feeling good about yourself. When the (negligible) pain has been eased out of PE, is it any wonder that the government worries about the lack of gain?
Alex Standish is an upper school head in south London
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999