Wasn’t it brilliant to see the Lionesses back on our screens recently, dribbling balls with schoolgirls outside No 10 Downing Street as the government responded to their campaign to improve PE? They are truly inspirational players and people. It felt good to relive the highs of the Euros last summer, stuck in this never-ending winter. But before we all sink into a huge sigh of relief that our children’s health is fixed and England’s entitlement to win major football trophies in perpetuity sorted, we must pause and question what’s actually changed and whether this will improve the country’s long-term health.
Firstly, why does it take a sustained high-profile campaign from England’s elite women footballers to get the government to address something so fundamental to health? Secondly, on a closer look, what has actually changed? In England and Scotland there is already government guidance that schools should provide a minimum of two hours of physical education a week. The funding announced is not new – it continues existing levels of Primary PE and Sport Premium funding (now confirmed so late, many schools already had plans to reduce sports provision). There is nothing additional to support the “equal access” commitment despite confused reporting suggesting there is. And the outdated existing model and concept of PE remains unfit for purpose, and another opportunity is missed to connect PE into a broader perspective and proactive strategy towards health.
The announcement focused on figures: numbers of girls getting football lessons at school, hours of physical activity per week for pupils and funding. These all count, but yet again we have forgotten that the real impact comes from what happens qualitatively. If we want to create healthier habits and children who go on to remain active throughout their lives, the quality of those PE hours is vital. If more girls are to access football and other sports, are existing structures in school able to adapt?
I heard nothing about investment to help schools with limited changing rooms, dilapidated facilities and a lack of staff. We have siloed off PE in our schools for years, seeing it as something additional or optional, rather than thinking about how fundamental movement is to a young person’s growth and development.
The chief medical officer recommends 60 minutes of activity every day which fewer than half our children achieve. But there is no holistic plan for how to keep our children active at school beyond minimum hours of PE or after-school sport clubs. Even the name “physical education” feels vastly outdated, given all we know about the mental and emotional (and academic) benefits of being physically active and how impossible it is to separate our brains from our bodies.
There is no longer-term perspective in sight either. Sport England’s figures on participation in physical activity over the last decade show that things have been going in the wrong direction. Despite the euphoria of hosting London 2012, barely anyone got up off the sofa to do more exercise than they had been doing before. That is a problem from so many perspectives, including the importance of keeping everyone healthy and fit, staying in employment and contributing to the wider life of the nation.
We need to start seeing school sport within the broader context of a healthy life rather than quadrennial elite tournament results. This can’t only be about inspiring the next generation of Lionesses. That is only one part of the picture. We need school to imbue pupils with a love of physical activity, to feel good moving their bodies, to see movement as key to a natural, healthy life and a vital support mechanism to help in the difficult times, as well as an integral part of the good times.
Our concept of school sport remains too narrow, I fear still based on what happened on the fields of Eton long ago. It excludes many children who don’t connect with classic offerings of rugby or football, revolves too much around who are the best kids who will make the first team and help the school win the local league, rather than helping children to connect with their bodies, feel comfortable learning to move in them and finding the myriad ways there are to be active beyond football, rugby and hockey. Don’t get me wrong, I love those sports and I want them to thrive at grassroots and elite levels – but I also want everyone who doesn’t feel part of those sports to have a route to a healthy, active life.
An interesting concept would be to inspire our children and our schools to prepare for the “Centenarian Olympics”, a concept that requires us to answer one question: What would you like to be able to do physically given the assumption that you will get to live to at least 100 years of age? And what do you need to be doing now to set yourself up for that? It requires a different mindset and perspective on physical development – and facilitates skills of long-term thinking useful across the curriculum.
Like the rest of England, I loved watching the Lionesses win at Wembley last summer. They are brilliant, but elite athletes will always be brilliant outliers. Statistics and standards demand it. We should beware the dangers of building school sport around finding future Olympians and Lionesses. Our solutions need to include the other 99.9% of children who we want to play their part in active, healthy communities
throughout their lives. That requires a fundamental rethink of PE and youth sport. Let’s not kid ourselves that the recent PR-heavy announcement has moved us forward yet on that vital challenge.
The headline of this article was amended on 16 March 2023 because an earlier version referred to the UK when England was meant.
Cath Bishop is an Olympic rowing medallist, leadership and culture coach, and author of The Long Win