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Why isn’t physical education viewed as important in our primary schools?

By Tim Gavel 18 July 2018 36
Physical activity has health, social and academic benefits for children. Photo: Jennifer Andrew.

Physical activity has health, social and academic benefits for children. Photo: Jennifer Andrew.

It’s a fair question given the obvious health and academic evidence, which shows that a certain amount of meaningful exercise each day has an enormous benefit. Obesity is a growing problem in Australia and there are obvious health benefits to being active. Physical activity, undertaken in the right way, offers much more than physical health benefits. Other benefits include opportunities to work constructively with others, the need for discipline, accountability and responsibility, particularly in team situations. Physical activity can also help to build self-confidence.

From my experience, as a parent, as a board member of the Physical Activity Foundation and through my involvement with School Sports ACT over the years, the physical education program in ACT primary schools is ad hoc, to say the least. Some teach physical education very well but it can be hit and miss. It’s very much dependant on the teachers involved and their commitment to the benefits of physical education for children.

High schools usually have dedicated physical education teachers, but the commitment to physical education for all students throughout the year sees to depend upon the workings of timetables and staff availability.

We seem to have lost our way over the years. When I was a primary school student in the 1960s and 70s, P.E was as important as every other subject. For many of us, it was the highlight of the day. Sport also featured as a weekly opportunity during school hours.

A number of sports competitions, including water polo, are offered to ACT school students through ACT School Sports in collaboration with ACT schools. Photo: Jennifer Andrew.

A number of sports competitions, including water polo, are offered to ACT school students through ACT School Sports in collaboration with ACT schools. Photo: Jennifer Andrew.

The ACT Government’s Physical Education and Sport Policy dictates that from kindergarten to Year 6, students must have 25 minutes moderate to vigorous physical activity per day as part of planned physical education programs. Does walking to the other side of the school and back constitute moderate to vigorous physical activity? School sport needs to have a progressive focus, not a ‘tick-box’ approach.

I know that this is easier said than done. Primary school teachers have a very crowded curriculum to deliver. I’ve looked through the requirements of the Health and Physical Education learning area, which is part of the Australian Curriculum, and to complete all requirements alongside all other learning areas must be extremely challenging for teachers. And maybe this is part of the problem; physical education as part of the curriculum includes “health” as well. Not only do teachers have to think about the active part of P.E., they have to also teach a bucket-load of other important parts of this curriculum area. Maybe the ‘physical’ is lost in all this!

I have seen first-hand teachers totally committed to delivering sport and physical education in Canberra schools but I have also seen the other side of the coin with teachers feeling as though physical education has been foisted upon them and it is a chore rather than an educational requirement. I have been in schools teaching gross motor skills to primary aged students who have had trouble catching a ball. I have witnessed many a school swimming carnival, both primary and high school, where kids can’t swim.

Renowned Canberra sports coach Dr Dick Telford has done some incredible work on the value of sport to academic learning. His studies have shown that children, who spend more time per week undertaking physical activity, improved their NAPLAN scores between Year 3 and Year 6 when compared with their less-active peers. Regardless of your thoughts about NAPLAN, and that’s another debate for another day, teachers also noted, according to Dr Telford, that the concentration of students improved after physical education.

In 2015 the ACT Government, to their credit, launched a program called P.E Pulse. The aim was to provide a link between the school system and sports. On the surface, the initiative looks great but the program has little power over the schools and the teachers. Once again, it competes with the crowded curriculum that teachers have to deliver.

But if we are so concerned as a society about kids watching too much television or being on their screens all day with little desire for exercise, why aren’t we doing more to solve the problem? If we are concerned about obesity and associated health issues amongst our children, why aren’t we demanding more time for physical activity every day at school?

Why isn’t sport and physical activity a core subject in every Canberra primary school? Primary teachers coming through universities are trained across a range of subjects such as Maths and English but is there as much effort given to training the same teachers about delivering a meaningful physical activity program as part of the curriculum?

Not from my experience.

What’s Your opinion?


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36 Responses to
Why isn’t physical education viewed as important in our primary schools?
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Sally-anne Hately Radcliffe 1:16 pm 22 Jul 18

Yes Yes Yes! 2 periods of P.E a week is Not enough.

John Andriunas 9:10 pm 19 Jul 18

Use of active transport options for children and adults would help reduce obesity in our community. Responsibility for PE shouldn't be placed on schools it's the responsibility of the parents.

    Julie Macklin 8:38 am 20 Jul 18

    It's the way I got exercise when I worked. Cycled to work. It saved the cost of fuel and parking too. On wet days I caught the bus. I still got exercise, because on my work end it was some distance from the bus stop; a 4 km round trip.

    John Andriunas 10:23 am 20 Jul 18

    Julie Macklin it's the best way to do it. I ride to work and my children cycle or catch the bus to school.

John Moulis 4:22 pm 19 Jul 18

Kids nowadays seem a lot more active than in the past. When I was at Melrose High in the early 1970s they brought in a new “fun” sports program which was hailed in the local media at the time.

Soccer, rugby, Aussie Rules and hockey were replaced by horseriding, ten pin bowling and chess. It was terrible. We lost our sporting edge and the other schools – particularly Marist next door – were running rings around us.

Sarah Breach 12:31 pm 19 Jul 18

Well said Kaz

Maya123 10:43 am 19 Jul 18

When I went to school we had two PE classes a week and a half day sports day.

Margaret Freemantle 7:41 pm 18 Jul 18

PE crucial from kindergarten on. It can be done in a less boring way. A group walk or dancing session before lessons begin..

Jill Brown 7:09 pm 18 Jul 18

I really hated pe at school and yet i love being a fit active adult. Perhaps we just need to rethink this program

Kaz Burton 6:06 pm 18 Jul 18

In my view as a PE teacher of 30 years, this fight continues. Can I just say, no one will die of lack of a French class or not knowing a mountain range you learn in geography. ( that’s for all the people wanting to know what will be dropped to fit in PE skills lessons) But if the foundations are not laid in the early years to exercise and be healthy ...then we are breeding an unhealthy generation who will possibly end up with diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease...the list goes on. Primary teachers do not teach the mandated PE activity time due to many reasons. We can talk about it over and over but if Education Departments do not treat the issue seriously, and school expectations to deliver well planned fundamental motor skills lessons to all primary age students are not followed up, then it will continue to just be ‘ a talking point.’

    Naomi Barker 6:59 pm 18 Jul 18

    Does a lot of it come from the Principal and how much of a priority he/she places on it? It’s interesting at our school - hold a ribbon presentation assembly following a sports carnival and the Principal is otherwise engaged, hold a band/choir assembly and he’s there, front row! I can’t help but notice these things 😫

    Naomi Barker 6:59 pm 18 Jul 18

    Does a lot of it come from the Principal and how much of a priority he/she places on it? It’s interesting at our school - hold a ribbon presentation assembly following a sports carnival and the Principal is otherwise engaged, hold a band/choir assembly and he’s there, front row! I can’t help but notice these things 😫

    Kaz Burton 7:33 pm 18 Jul 18

    Naomi Barker you are onto it!!!

    Amy LD 7:35 pm 18 Jul 18

    100% I agree with everything you have said.

    I think it is important to promote healthy eating too. In a high school setting I cringe at what students are sent to school with for lunch. None of which can sustain or provide enough energy for learning. A packet of chips, juice boxes, no breakfast and maybe a white bread sandwich with a some kind of spread... Parents are setting their kids up for failure. Even now, if one of my student tells me they are hungry in class I ask them to open their bag and lunch box and if it is fruit they can have that.

    Elspeth Shannon Rollason 9:56 pm 18 Jul 18

    Well said Kaz

    Jennifer Andrew 9:31 am 19 Jul 18

    I remember teaching in the western suburbs of Sydney and the Food Tech teacher would get all her Year 7 students come to the office at the beginning of school, so she could inspect their lunchbox. The students were supposed to make their own "healthy lunch". She would report that the vast majority had a packet of chips and a soft drink! That was AFTER they learned about healthy food!

    Sally-anne Hately Radcliffe 1:18 pm 22 Jul 18

    Naomi Barker I think you are spot on!

Kerry Baylor 5:48 pm 18 Jul 18

exercise and fresh air would help with stamina,energy and concentration. The curriculum sucks, no life skills taught at all.Sports do that

Melissa Helmers 4:19 pm 18 Jul 18

Really? My kids keep telling me about all the sport they do at school. They have PE and gross motor that they do each week. This school does have a dedicated sports teacher. They do organise lots of special sports events too like tennis clinics, AFL clinics ect as I'm sure most (if not all ) public primary school do. So with all the sport at school and bike riding after school and weekends they tend to get a fair bit in.

bj_ACT 3:58 pm 18 Jul 18

Good point Tim. My experience shows that middle class to wealthy kids in Canberra get good access to sports and physical education through schooling and in after school sports.

The poorer kids in the outer Suburbs of Canberra, get less access and less opportunity to participate in kids sport. Many of these are the kids who would most benefit from these opportunities.

ACT Government should be running some free after school sports programs in Charnwood, Kambah and Richardson. I remember groups of us used to play Soccer and Touch football on Duffy Oval before we got kicked out unless we rented access to the ground. My son and his mates used to go to a Kambah Oval before it had the access locked by ACT Government.

Unfortunately Andrew Barr would rather give $23 million to GWS to turn up to ACT schools to try and convert the kids to Aussie Rules than provide sporting opportunities for Canberra’s poor.

    Tim Gavel 9:26 am 19 Jul 18

    I agree BJ, how easy it is to think that in Canberra all people have equal opportunity. I remember a few people from Uni-North Owls rugby going around and picking up kids who couldn’t otherwise make it to their playing field. They kitted them out with gear as well.
    I often think that if my kids weren’t driven to and from their various after school activities when they were younger (and even now), they wouldn’t go!
    I know schools have to do, but at least it means that all kids are given an equal opportunity.
    Tim Gavel

Belinda Napier 2:57 pm 18 Jul 18

My child currently does 4 lessons of PE/Health each week, in Year 8. How much more time would you like the school to devote to PE/sport? Each extra lesson takes away learning time from the core subjects.

Trish Roberts 2:34 pm 18 Jul 18

I recently read about a Scottish initiative where kids walk or run for 15 minutes every day, to their ability. Called “The daily mile.” Sounds interesting.

    Beatrice Munro 3:55 pm 18 Jul 18

    It's great, I wish we did it in Canberra

    Elspeth Shannon Rollason 5:40 pm 18 Jul 18

    Having just returned from living in Scotland and teaching there and having children in their education system I never heard of this. My kids schools didn’t have it but they had PE of sorts, just like our system here in primary school; some schools had specialists others didn’t

Michael Wilson 2:01 pm 18 Jul 18

Every class in school is serious hit and miss lol why would PE be any different?

Jill Dunster 1:53 pm 18 Jul 18

I'd say the horrid lunchbox snacks that are marketed as "healthy" are also a huge problem. Mueslie bars, sugary yoghurt, fruit juices, sandwiches etc are all nutritionally diabolical. Such a shame that things like nuts and eggs (that are nutritionally brilliant foods) are banned in most schools.

Additionally, the "traffic light" system in our schools canteen that is supposed to help children and parents make informed decisions about healthy food, is grossly misinformed. A "green light" yoghurt with 20 grams of sugar per serve, is *not* a healthy choice.

You cannot outrun a bad diet. We'd be better off teaching our kids about the right types and quantity of fuel they put into their bodies. Teaching them that they can burn off rubbish by increasing their activity is pointless and sets them up for failure. I'd be much more comfortable with nutritional education being included in their PE curriculum.

    Ava Lyons 2:34 pm 18 Jul 18

    How dare they ban nuts!

    Jill Dunster 5:23 pm 18 Jul 18

    Ava Lyons I'm not outraged. They're just a good snack that I wish I was able to send to school with my kids but I don't because I know they can be harmful.

Jill Holt 1:52 pm 18 Jul 18

I have only done relief in one primary school that had a P E teacher Idid relief for him quite a bit in the 90s. The legendary Mr Beer Forrest Primary Canberra ACT Australia. No other primary school had a P E teacher. the classteachers had to teach but they really didn't have the training. I grew up in a countrytown where sport was very important (1950 - 1970) and Canberra included in that time. Sport was compulsory and loved. I was our school s well one of house Captain and just loved sport. Hope it is returned to all schools.

Carolyn Spooner 1:15 pm 18 Jul 18

Agree with a level of sport/excercise at school, however school should be for learning, not making up for bad parenting. Plenty of time for sport outside school hours.

Anoushka Goodger 1:14 pm 18 Jul 18

If we add more sport where wld u like us to fit everything else in? We do sport/ exercise every day. To add more takes away from other core subjects which are equally important. Parents need to be educated... go for a walk with your kids, get them into sport, play in the backyard.

Janet Ilchef 1:11 pm 18 Jul 18

When my kids were at school the amount of sport was cut because of the Sun Smart programme

Caitlin Hanby 1:07 pm 18 Jul 18

The focus should be individual fitness.

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