PE pro­vides far more than a phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian O’Riordan

We were just a few weeks into First Year at De La Salle Church­town when Jim Stynes walked into our class­room car­ry­ing the All-Ire­land mi­nor foot­ball tro­phy. It was 1984 and we were at that age and point in our lives where any dis­tinct in­flu­ence could and usu­ally did have a last­ing ef­fect.

Jim in­stantly pro­vided that, not only be­cause he was al­ready a gi­ant of a man. He’d fin­ished up at the school that sum­mer and here he was back a few months later an All-Ire­land win­ner, one of Dublin’s stand­out play­ers at mid­field along­side cap­tain Paul Clarke. In that still en­tirely ado­les­cent mo­ment it seemed he opened up a world far be­yond the gates of De La Salle.

It didn’t ac­tu­ally mat­ter whether he’d won or lost. He’d played in Croke Park and was about to make a ca­reer out of sport. Two months later he replied to a lo­cal news­pa­per ar­ti­cle look­ing for re­cruits to Mel­bourne Foot­ball Club, and the rest is Aus­tralian sport­ing his­tory. His 244 con­sec­u­tive games for Mel­bourne, between 1987 and 1998 are still an AFL record (which only ended af­ter he broke his hand) and he is still the first and only non-Aus­tralian to win the Brown­low Medal. In 2012 he died from can­cer, at 45, my age now ex­actly.

Fit and out of trou­ble

I re­mem­ber all that be­cause his younger brother Brian was in our class, and was equally sporty. We were la­belled a rugby school but ac­tu­ally De La Salle didn’t care what sport you played as long as it helped keep you fit and out of trou­ble, prefer­ably the lat­ter. Es­pe­cially when it came to PE.

For a dou­ble-class ev­ery Thurs­day morn­ing it was sur­vival of the fittest. We played all the so-called in­va­sion games – rugby, foot­ball, bas­ket­ball – and no prizes for guess­ing the first and last per­son picked. Brian was al­ways the stand­out and it was no sur­prise when he fol­lowed his brother’s foot­steps to Aus­tralia, and later re­turned to star on the Dublin se­nior All-Ire­land win­ning team of 1995, along­side cur­rent man­ager Jim Gavin.

Around Oc­to­ber or Novem­ber our PE teacher Dick Ryan took us cross coun­try run­ning, and here’s where the ta­bles were turned. I re­mem­ber all that be­cause that’s when run­ning be­came my sport (and still is). Not be­cause any­one forced it or be­cause my dad ran in the Olympics, but be­cause I en­joyed it, hap­pened to be good at it, and yes be­cause it opened up a world far be­yond the gates of De La Salle.

There is a lot of talk these days about the lack of phys­i­cal fit­ness among Ir­ish school­child­ren, and you don’t need me to re­mind you just how scary the stats are.

Rec­om­mended

It’s not just the shock­ingly low par­tic­i­pa­tion (80 per cent of pri­mary school­child­ren are not get­ting the rec­om­mended at least one hour of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity per day), or that one-third are com­ing out of pri­mary school un­able to prop­erly run, jump, throw or even catch a ball (ac­cord­ing to a new re­search study car­ried out by DCU and the GAA).

For a self-pro­claimed sport­ing mad na­tion, some­thing doesn’t add up when one in four Ir­ish school­child­ren is now con­sid­ered to be over­weight. The projections are even more scary, and ac­cord­ing to some re­ports, our obe­sity lev­els will be hov­er­ing some­where around 90 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion by 2030, the high­est pro­jected level in Europe.

Prof Niall Moyna, head of the school of health and hu­man per­for­mance at DCU, wrote pos­si­bly the most im­por­tant opin­ion piece on this sub­ject in this news­pa­per on Mon­day, all point­ing to­wards the poor al­lo­ca­tion and prac­tice of PE in Ir­ish schools.

“The ma­jor­ity of chil­dren who are not in­volved in com­pet­i­tive sport leave school with lit­tle or no knowl­edge of how to de­sign and mon­i­tor pro­grams to main­tain health-re­lated fit­ness,” he wrote. “Fur­ther­more they have lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of nu­tri­tion, stress man­age­ment or the im­pact of al­co­hol, smok­ing or recre­ational drug use on their health. This is a cur­ricu­lum that calls it­self ‘phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion’ – and is fall­ing well short of what it prom­ises to do.”

With that he pro­poses ba­sic yet ur­gent changes (pri­mary school­child­ren should have three 15-minute pe­ri­ods of PE each day), while also en­cour­ag­ing the Gov­ern­ment to con­sider in­clud­ing PE in the Leav­ing Cert cur­ricu­lum, at least in part.

Ob­sta­cles

That was ac­tu­ally one of the pledges made by Leo Varad­kar in his cam­paign for Taoiseach, and there’s been talk of mak­ing PE an op­tional Leav­ing Cert exam sub­ject since the 1980s (an ac­tual cur­ricu­lum has been on the shelf since 2004); still var­i­ous bar­ri­ers and ob­sta­cles are put in the way, such as the lack of fa­cil­i­ties, the need to en­sure stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of the sub­ject ma­te­rial, and the hir­ing of enough suit­ably qual­i­fied PE teach­ers.

In the mean­time, a 2013 sur­vey of 36 Euro­pean Coun­tries ranked Ire­land third from the bot­tom with the 37 hours of PE a year at pri­mary school (com­pared to 108 in France); at sec­ondary school, it av­er­ages 45 hours a year (half of what stu­dents get in Por­tu­gal).

Last Novem­ber, Min­is­ter for Sport Shane Ross opened the public con­sul­ta­tion for a new Na­tional Sports Pol­icy Frame­work, which also has the po­ten­tial to im­prove the phys­i­cal fit­ness of our school­child­ren, but it seems that’s still sit­ting on a shelf some­where too.

There doesn’t ap­pear to be much hope of in­creas­ing those PE hours in the short term, un­less Varad­kar is se­ri­ous about his pledge, which makes those class­room vis­its by All-Ire­land win­ners a still ef­fec­tive strat­egy for im­prov­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion lev­els.

It doesn’t ac­tu­ally mat­ter whether Dublin or Mayo win to­mor­row. A player from ei­ther team could walk into any class­room in the coun­try on Mon­day morn­ing and help prove that PE pro­vides far more than a phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion.

It doesn’t ac­tu­ally mat­ter whether Dublin or Mayo win to­mor­row. A player from ei­ther team could walk into any class­room in the coun­try on Mon­day morn­ing and help prove that PE pro­vides far more than a phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion

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