WHEN I was eight, I would have been quite relieved if school sport had been abolished altogether. It was awful to stand in the playground and always be the last to be picked for the team. Rounders was my worst nightmare. I couldn’t hit the ball. Couldn’t run. Couldn’t throw straight. I would spend most of the afternoon fielding in a day dream. It did nothing for me except to prove that life could be very cruel sometimes.
I have much sympathy then with my daughter, Lizzie. She’s eight too. She storms home from school and complains that PE is pointless. “What’s the point of chucking a bean-bag about?” she says and throws her kit into the corner with an aim that suggests she might have more sporting talent than she realises. I have much sympathy too with the majority of children polled by Marylebone Cricket Club and the sporting charity Chance to Shine. Two-thirds of them also admitted that school sport leaves them cold. Win or lose? They don’t care.
If our children are asking what the point is, we parents can be forgiven for doing so too. Especially when the Government has pledged to award primary schools in England £150m a year in sports funding in an effort to restore PE to the heart of the timetable. If the kids don’t like it, and teachers find it a nightmare to shoe-horn into the timetable, wouldn’t it be better to leave it out altogether? Surely the money could be better spent elsewhere? Investing in teaching staff. Renovating inadequate school buildings. Purchasing much-needed IT equipment.
Well, it’s tempting to say yes. However, as I say to Lizzie, one of the most important lessons that school teaches us is that we can’t always have our own way. Children should grow up learning that the world does not revolve around themselves and their own agenda.
Sometimes, they have to do things which they simply don’t feel like doing. And I am sad to say that too many parents are guilty of turning their children into little emperors. I am frankly disgusted to hear the way some youngsters speak to their mothers and fathers. The adults bow and scrape to their every whim, offering instant gratification in the form of expensive toys and trainers and £500 phones. If these spoilt children are to stand any chance whatsoever of getting on in adult life, they need a bit of context. And if running up and down the hall throwing bean-bags at each other is the only way they are going to get it, at least it’s a start. They might not like it, but it proves to them that they can’t have their own way every minute of the day.
However unwilling they might be to participate it also forces children to address the tricky matter of teamwork. As we all know, the ability to put your own ego aside and get on with other people is vital for survival in adult life. If you go through childhood without ever having your edges knocked off, you turn into a very self-centred adult.
Also, as I found out to my cost standing in the outfield for hours on end, it’s important to work out where your strengths and weaknesses lie. I might not be competitive in the sporting arena, but I’ll fight for any cause I believe in.
And, of course, it gets young bodies moving. One of Lizzie’s major cavils with physical activity at school is that she already goes to dancing class three times a week. However, as I never tire of reminding her, she is one of the lucky ones.
There are millions of children who never take any exercise at all outside of school. Ferried here, there and everywhere by car, spending evenings and weekends prone on the sofa in front of a screen, it’s no wonder so many end up unfit and obese.
Even if a child hates running around as much as I did, at least they are reminding their legs what they are for. And anything which encourages even a subconscious link between exercise and health has got to be a good thing.
And what about the children who have some interest and ability, but no means to exercise it elsewhere? The cost of participation in sport outside of school is beyond the means of so many families. For these youngsters, those few hours a week are the only chance they get to show what they are made of.
It would be nice to think even now, the next Mo Farah is being brought on by a supportive teacher. Our Olympic hero, who came to this country from Mogadishu not speaking a word of English, was nurtured by his PE teacher at secondary school.
I realise that this is probably not much comfort to those stood daydreaming when they are supposed to be fielding. I realise it’s not much comfort to our Lizzie, who is already moaning about sports day. It is however, some comfort to those of us who care about giving every child a chance to learn what they are capable of.