PE on school cur­ricu­lum a move in the right di­rec­tion

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

It’s Tues­day morning and the first day of the rest of their lives. The fifth year stu­dents at Coláiste Chraobh Ab­hann in Kil­coole take their seats for the first dou­ble class of the new term, and Sarah Mi­ley hands out fresh copies of the long and com­plex syl­labus. They see weeks of lessons around ethics and strate­gies and plan­ning for op­ti­mum per­for­mance and they can’t wait to get stuck in.

There are some jokes about when they’ll get out­side to play some foot­ball but oth­er­wise they all sense their place in the his­tory of Ir­ish ed­u­ca­tion. Af­ter sev­eral decades of hopes and prom­ises they are among the first stu­dents to take phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion as a Leav­ing Cert sub­ject – and cer­tainly not be­fore their time.

Mi­ley has been teach­ing PE at Coláiste Chraobh Ab­hann for the last two years, and im­me­di­ately recog­nised the po­ten­tial when the Wick­low school was one of the 80 suc­cess­ful ap­pli­cants to pi­lot the new Leav­ing Cert syl­labus back in Fe­bru­ary: in all 369 ap­plied, more than half of the coun­try’s sec­ondary schools, and the in­ten­tion is to open all schools to the new sub­ject from the au­tumn of 2020.

For now it’s up to teach­ers like Mi­ley to make sense and a suc­cess of it, and she couldn’t be more en­thu­si­as­tic. The first Leav­ing Cert PE ex­ams will take place in June 2020, and the hard work be­gins now. It helps her in­ter­est in sport and phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion goes far beyond the class­room, not least as the highly-rated mid­fielder on the Wick­low women’s foot­ball team, and the most im­por­tant thing about the new PE syl­labus, says Mi­ley, is its in­clu­siv­ity, rather than any per­ceived ex­clu­siv­ity, all based around what is neatly termed phys­i­cal lit­er­acy.

Not handy sub­ject

“That first dou­ble class on Tues­day was all the­ory, and I think the stu­dents were a lit­tle sur­prised about that, but they know that’s how they’re go­ing to learn. It’s cer­tainly not the handy sub­ject that maybe some of them thought it might be, be­cause we’re ac­tu­ally in the class­room quite a bit, and there’s home­work and Christ­mas and sum­mer ex­ams and all that too, but there’s also the strong prac­ti­cal el­e­ment, which is quite ex­cit­ing for a lot of them.

“The big dif­fer­ence re­ally is there are now 180 hours of al­lo­cated time for the Leav­ing Cert course, so I will see my Leav­ing Cert PE class four times a week, one dou­ble class, and three sin­gles. Plus the two al­lo­cated classes of PE they’d be get­ting any­way. That’s a mas­sive change.

“And I think the syl­labus is very in-depth, and cov­ers ev­ery­thing you’d want for a young adult. It gives them the op­por­tu­nity to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their own learn­ing, and de­vel­op­ing their own ca­pac­ity for phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion and phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, and be con­fi­dent and in­formed about how they do it.”

Of the 80 pi­lot schools, 18 are in Dublin, the rest spread out from St Eu­nan’s Col­lege in Done­gal to Scoil Phobail Sli­abh Luachra in Kerry. As a mixed school, Coláiste Chraobh Ab­hann also gets to test out the new syl­labus on boys and girls – and Mi­ley de­scribes the in­ter­est in her class, capped at 26, as even be­tween the two. Equally im­por­tant is the pi­lot­ing of the PE syl­labus as a non-ex­am­inable sub­ject for the ma­jor­ity of se­nior cycle stu­dents, which can ul­ti­mately help breathe more love and less loathing into the sub­ject.

There is no re­quire­ment for any­one tak­ing PE to be a bud­ding young Kyle Hayes or Thomas Barr. It does help if there’s an in­ter­est in sport: the sub­ject mat­ter ranges from run­ning to rugby, swim­ming to sail­ing, ori­en­teer­ing to dancing. It’s an op­por­tu­nity to do well in a Leav­ing Cert sub­ject, only if the work is put in. Mi­ley made that clear to her stu­dents on Tues­day: “The class I have would be gen­er­ally quite ac­tive, some maybe not as much, but that’s not es­sen­tial for the course. There’s an op­por­tu­nity to act as a coach, or a chore­og­ra­pher, as op­posed to say the ath­lete, and I’d have a nice bal­ance of boys and girls, with a nice range of ex­per­tise and dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests. The main thing as well is the in­ter­est from the stu­dents, their com­mit­ment, and also the in­ter­est in their per­for­mance.”

For 2020, the Leav­ing Cert exam will be come in three parts: a writ­ten exam on some of those strate­gies and plan­ning for op­ti­mum per­for­mance will count for 50 per cent; a coach­ing or chore­og­ra­pher project will count for 20 per cent; and a dig­i­tal/video project cap­tur­ing their own choice of ac­tiv­ity will count for 30 per cent.

Each class chooses three of six cat­e­gories of ac­tiv­ity, again rang­ing from the ath­letic to the aes­thetic. For PE teach­ers like Mi­ley that’s a wel­come re­turn to some of the fun­da­men­tals of move­ment: “My class choose Gaelic foot­ball (from the games el­e­ment), sprint­ing (from athletics) and then cir­cuits (from per­sonal fit­ness). Most kids think they can run, but there is so much more to learn, in terms of co­or­di­na­tion and bal­ance.”

Wor­ry­ing re­ports

Part of the higher aim here is to ad­dress those in­creas­ingly wor­ry­ing re­ports about the health of our school­child­ren; the 2013 sur­vey of 36 Euro­pean coun­tries which ranked Ire­land third from the bottom with just 37 hours of PE a year at pri­mary school (com­pared to 108 in France); or re­ports last year that one-third are com­ing out of pri­mary school un­able to prop­erly run, jump, throw or even catch a ball. And 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 main thing we’re try­ing to in­flu­ence is the want and need to un­der­stand just how im­por­tant phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity is,” says Mi­ley, “and make that a lifelong thing. Down the road I think PE fa­cil­i­ties around the coun­try will need to im­prove for this to re­ally take off, yes, but it’s 100 per cent mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

I’d have a nice bal­ance of boys and girls, with a nice range of ex­per­tise and dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests

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