A mile wide and an inch deep

It’s that time of year again – Wimbledon, the Ashes (cricket), British Lions rugby, Open Golf and glorious British sporting failure. And – as if scheduled into our summer sporting calendar – the associated debate in the media about how Britain can improve upon its levels of sporting success.

As a former “drillie” (physical education teacher) I wondered if I might be so bold as to offer some observations on the nature of secondary school physical education programmes, its links with school sport, national governing bodies, their use of funding streams and our national sporting aspirations.

I last pulled on – or should that read off? – my tracksuit in 1999. Yet in the intervening years I have not seen any significant progress in terms of the physical education curriculum offered to young people. At risk of offending my colleagues we still suffer from the “mile wide, inch deep” approach to curricular design, whereby learners typically get no more that five or six weeks at any activity, before they move onto the next

The logic, which has been with us since the 1970’s, has been that children need to be exposed to as many activities in order to allow them to experience something/anything which they might take up in their active “leisure” time. Of course the reality is that the limited time given over to any activity is such that there is little likelihood of them gaining any mastery before the dish is snatched off the table to be replaced with another, and so on, and so on.

Of course one can understand the rationale here, not everyone will enjoy the same activity, different sports offer different challenges, some sports are more physically demanding, and then there’s the notion that children needs a varied physical experience – although such a concept conveniently ignores the fact that so few of these learners ever get beyond the beginner phase.

So it’s with this in mind that I would return to a theme I last wrote about nearly 20 years ago when I argued for a more limited physical education programme but one which extended children and allowed them to experience real mastery and the associated esteem which goes along with such success. By moving away from recurrent “taster” programmes we could begin to create coherent programmes of work which actually progressively build upon one another from one year to the next.

Having settled on their school’s major teaching activities the department would set about teaching them to the highest possible standard for all children. In this way schools would have more time to allow clear progression through the years, this, associated with a very comprehensive inclusion policy would ensure that learners of all abilities could experience success at a level far beyond anything which can be achieved in the traditional “inch deep” programmes.

In relation to the selection of these major activities I would consider the local culture but I would see nothing to prevent a school from majoring in what might be seen as relatively minor sports if it can be taught in an imaginative, challenging and supportive manner, e.g. a school in London in the 1960’s majored on teaching the pole vault with extraordinary results.

Which leads me neatly to my second observation which relates to how national bodies currently deploy their resources to develop their sports at age group levels. I have always believed that where a school can create a culture of success in a particular sporting field then the momentum that this creates for high participation levels and high standards cannot be replicated by any other strategy. The examples in Scotland are legion where a passionate teacher has transformed a school, in a very short period of time, into a leading exponent of an activity. What people often fail to recognise that the below the obvious peak of the participation/competitive pyramid there are many, many children who have benefited from belonging to that culture.

And so to my final suggestion – national sporting bodies should adopt schools and focus their energies on a captive audience within a single school as opposed to trying to spread their energies and resources across a wide range schools. My goal would be to see every school in Scotland with a particular sporting focus – not to the exclusion of every other activity but at the very least it would provide a means for encouraging high levels of participation and performance. 

3 thoughts on “A mile wide and an inch deep

  1. Would the approach you suggest in the final paragraph need to include an overview so that schools, specialising in a particular sport, could compete against others without having to travel great distances?

  2. Why only sport, why not the arts and music as well. Even some specialist subjects viz Gaelic not universally taught.. Maybe in the sixth form, others from schools not specialising in particular subject/sport or arts, might be allowed to participate as you suggest elsewhere.

  3. Pingback: Don Ledingham’s Learning Log » Challenges and Opportunities for the Scottish Physical Education Profession

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