As exasperated parents know the world over, running is something that comes naturally to children. It takes a conspiracy of adults to knock the fun out of it: Cars which turn streets into death traps, notices officiously banning ball games and, above all, the more sadistic side of the teaching profession.
One has to wonder why the experience of school sports is so often an unpleasant one. Given that most kids love to hare about at any given opportunity, how do bad PE teachers turn that exuberance into loathing?
Fortunately, there are many brilliant PE teachers too – who instil a love of sport in millions of children. Writing for Athletics Weekly, Jason Henderson looks back fondly on his school days:
“I used to have wild butterflies of pure excitement in my belly before weekly cross country sessions. Games afternoon on Wednesday – with cross country in winter and athletics in summer – was the highlight of my week and the only thing that could beat it was seeing my name on a cross country team sheet on the PE notice board. When that happened I would shiver with anticipation. Yes, I’m not exaggerating – literally shiver.
“Okay, maybe I was a little unusual. I would go on to work for Athletics Weekly, after all. But I’m sure I’m far from alone. From world-beaters… through to humble club runners like myself, those early races and training runs at school were an absolute joy.”
Achieving any standard of excellence in sport also requires discipline, dedication and not a little pain – but Jason Henderson is surely right to identify joy as the foundation of all athletic endeavour.
He was therefore appalled when the Department for Education recently issued guidance in which running was identified as a suitable punishment for misbehaving pupils. Sure enough, there it is on page 8 of Behaviour and discipline in schools – in among a list of ‘sanctions’ including detention, lines and litter duty:
“To suggest ‘extra physical activity such as running around a playing field’ as punishment for naughty children is…ridiculous… what message does it send youngsters when bad behaviour is punished with sport?”
Prominent figures from British athletics have expressed their own dismay including Brendan Foster, Paula Radcliffe and Tanni Grey-Thompson:
“Chrissie Wellington, the ironman triathlon legend, wrote on her website: ‘Using physical activity as a punishment is outdated and inappropriate. It will entrench lasting fear and loathing for sport amongst children and young people, running the risk that they will carry negative attitude to physical activity throughout their lives.'”
It’s not that Wellington and the others think that running is too hard on the little darlings – quite the opposite:
“She added: ‘Physical activity is a joy, a pleasure: something to be embraced and welcomed. We need the next generation to grow up wanting to be active. We need school staff, parents and children to view running around the school field (if they haven’t been sold off) as a pleasure, rather than a punishment.'”
Of course, Michael Gove can’t do anything to tighten up educational standards without some group of pantywaist liberals whinging about it. However, this campaign is different. For instance, Gavin Megaw – the organiser of a change.org petition to have the guidance withdrawn – is a former chairman of Conservative Future:
“I am not anti-Government nor anti-Michael Gove, instead, I only want to see a sensible approach taken that is not detrimental to our children’s futures.”
Resolution in the face of entrenched opposition to reform is something to be admired in ministers. But when mistakes are made, admitting to them and putting them right is a sign of strength not weakness.
Michael Gove might not be most people’s idea of a sporting hero – but he could become one if he over-rules his officials and strikes-out this rotten piece of advice.