The irony of me – the least sportiest girl in the class who hated PE with a passion – turning up at BBC Radio Wales at 7.45am this morning, in full workout gear having already done an hour’s session at the gym, to discuss draft proposals that some believe could see physical education dropped from the school curriculum, wasn’t lost on me.
You see, younger me hated PE. Younger me thought she wasn’t sporty. Younger me was crap at netball. Even worse at hockey. She could never get the racquet to hit the ball in tennis. Fell over the hurdles and couldn’t get the javelin to go in a straight line. Always the last to be picked for team games.
Younger me – the book worm and member of the school orchestra and choir – would never in a million years have believed that older her would have not one but two jobs connected with the fitness industry. Younger me, who detested navy gym skirts and matching knickers with a passion, could never have imagined that when she grew up she’d not only be a qualified yoga teacher but also organise social runs for women with her job as This Mum Runs Cardiff community coordinator.
Younger me would have been the first to say drop PE from the curriculum entirely. That there were far better things she could be doing with her time.
Younger me thought sport wasn’t for her.
But actually, younger me just hadn’t found the right sports.
Because that’s the thing about sports and fitness – it can and should be for everyone.
And for lots of us, that starts with our experiences at school.
The new draft curriculum for Welsh schools has been in the news today because Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson has criticised the curriculum for not specifying a set amount of physical activity every week. That’s what I was invited onto the radio to discuss.
The proposals would leave it to individual schools to determine PE lessons, as part of a wider Health and Wellbeing remit.
This is one of six areas of learning and experience which could replace traditional subjects (the others being maths and numeracy; languages, literacy and communication; humanities; science and technology; and expressive arts), with the curriculum due to be introduced in primary and Year 7 classrooms from September 2022 before being rolled out to all year groups. It’s the biggest reform to Welsh schools in decades and a huge change in culture.
However, some education campaigners have criticised the drafts for not being clear enough. (You can read more about it here.
Supporters of the draft curriculum say that because for the first time ‘wellbeing’ will be placed at the heart of school life, children will become more active and healthier.
However, Baroness Grey-Thompson – the former Paralympic gold medallist, who sits in the House of Lords – told BBC Wales Live, “If time is not carved out to do it, it will just disappear”.
“Because PE is difficult to teach, it’s one of those things that I really worry will slip away because there are other things that are easier to do,” said Tanni, who was grew up in Cardiff.
“If sport is not explicitly mentioned, it will just drop off. Whatever the meaning and the intention, it won’t have the same priority.
“We won’t see the problem right now, we’ll see it 15 or 20 years down the line when the NHS bill goes through the roof because we have a generation of young adults who are just not fit enough to be healthy.”
She is supported by a group of AMs who recommend schools be required by law to provide at least two hours of PE every week.
Sport Wales says the new curriculum’s success depends on teachers being adequately trained. Its chief executive Sarah Powell told the BBC, “The essential thing is to build up the confidence, motivation and skills of teachers to be able to deliver a high quality curriculum. But if we don’t see that, then this is a curriculum that doesn’t actually deliver the changes that we need to see.”
It’s a huge subject and one that deserves to be debated and discussed to find the best responses and solutions.
Focussing on wellbeing is a hugely positive step. Encouraging children to look holistically at how nutrition and fitness can benefit all areas of their lives, as outlined in the draft, can only be encouraged.
However, I echo Tanni’s concerns that not specifically timetabling physical activity could see it fall off the curriculum in some schools. With school budgets being slashed and teachers under increasing demands for their pupils to hit targets, PE (and also the Arts) are the first things to be ditched when time and resources are low.
A country in crisis
It’s no secret that we are in the midst of an obesity crisis. In fact, obesity has overtaken smoking as the biggest Welsh health crisis. More than a quarter of children in Wales are classed as overweight or obese. We also know that mental health in children is a huge issue – The Welsh Government has said it must be a priority
It’s no secret that sport and fitness would help in both these areas.
It’s easy to say parents need to take responsibility – and yes, in an ideal world that would be great. But for some children, those two hours of PE lessons a week may be the only physical activity they are getting.
Ensuring it’s timetabled is a huge part of making physical activity a normal part of life.
But I also think we need to look at what physical activity children are offered.
Finding the right sport opens doors
Some children thrive with competitive team sports such as netball, hockey, football and rugby, finding it improves both their physical and mental wellbeing, their confidence, team skills and so on. Others grow up scarred by memories of team sports at school, with their confidence so low that the mere thought of a hockey stick gives them palpitations. It’s a common feeling among the women I meet through This Mum Runs and my yoga classes. Many of the women I meet know they need to do something to help their physical and mental wellbeing – but putting themselves out there is petrifying. It’s tough when you start – you’re red-faced, puffy and sweaty. But then you begin to see the benefits, you slowly improve, and you achieve things you never thought possible. You realise sport doesn’t always have to be fiercely competitive. You realise you can go at your own pace. You realise you can work together to achieve goals. You realise that it can be fun and sociable. You realise that someone else doing well doesn’t make you a ‘loser’.
For me, it was a couple of sessions on long distance running when in year 10, and our year 11 teacher shoving us in front of a step aerobics video so that she could concentrate on the GCSE PE students that made me think, actually, not all exercise is bad. No one was looking at me when I did step aerobics. Me doing something wrong didn’t lose us the game. It was a hugely refreshing experience for someone who until then hated PE.
More than that though; it paved the way for me to join the gym while at university and to run along the seafront. It gave me the confidence to join a yoga class, not long after I graduated,
I’m reluctant to call yoga a sport, because it is so much more than that, but I came to it initially from a physical point of view, and my life has never been the same since. Likewise with running. I strive to see improvement in myself, whether that’s getting faster or running longer distances. But above all, both make me feel mentally stronger, calmer and better prepared to deal with life. I have other friends who get the benefits same from Zumba or body pump or even walking up mountains, despite not being sporty at school.
Ever since they were babies, my three children have taken part in physical activity – baby yoga, baby swimming, toddler gymnastics and now they are older, swimming, netball, football, rugby, athletics, hockey and Junior Parkrun between them. I hope they will grow up appreciating the benefits of physical exercise and I hope they realise that just because they don’t like or aren’t ‘good’ (I hate that word) at certain sports, that doesn’t mean they won’t like other sports.
So yes, introducing wellbeing to the curriculum is a hugely positive step for schools – but we need to ensure physical education is timetabled into the curriculum, because being sat in a classroom learning about why exercising is good isn’t the same as actually doing that exercise. And we also need to ensure the physical opportunities we provide inspire and excite children so that they grow up to become adults who want fitness to be a part of their lives.