| 8.1°C Dublin

Karl Henry: Let's make fitness a subject


A+ for fitness: Karl Henry is calling on school unions and the Government to take action

A+ for fitness: Karl Henry is calling on school unions and the Government to take action

A+ for fitness: Karl Henry is calling on school unions and the Government to take action

Picture the scene. It's Leaving Cert results day, students around the country are opening their envelopes after an incredibly stressful year working hard for their exams. They open their results and run through them, seeing the benefits of their hard work. The final result on the form is their fitness level. Having achieved over level 7 in the bleep test, the student gets an extra 15 bonus points for being physically fit during the most stressful year of their lives.

Actually, hold on a minute, that was one of my dreams last week. In fact, bonus points for being fit when you finish secondary school has been a dream initiative I have had for the past three years, since I presented it to the Oireachtas Committee for Health.

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about sugar tax and why we need it, the column generated a huge amount of discussion, which was the whole point. It is great to get people talking about health.Another point that came up for discussion in the column was the bleep test assessment for secondary school pupils. This is my dream. This is my solution to the fact that we are unfit as a nation, that we lose fitness as we progress through the secondary school system and when sitting the biggest exams of our lives, we are probably at our unhealthiest.

Today I want to examine and present my case further for this topic, generate some more discussion and hopefully show why this is the cure for the lack of fitness that is overtaking the nation.

So what exactly am I proposing?

* Every secondary school year are fitness tested in September and May

* Each report card has a fitness level score from 1-10

* In your Junior Cert year and Leaving Cert year you are graded for fitness just like every other subject

* In your Leaving Cert year, you receive bonus points depending on your level of fitness, gaining points for every level you achieve above a minimum requirement

When Ireland needed more honours maths graduates, the Government offered a bonus points scheme to incentivise students to take it. As a nation we react incredibly well to incentives; guess what happened; we filled the need for maths graduates.

How would the testing work:

* Every school would complete a bleep test for each group of pupils in PE class in September and May

* To compete the test, each school would need a CD and a CD player, a hall or field and cones to mark the distance

* Each report card would show the score

It sounds overly simple doesn't it. Well in fact it is. There is virtually no cost, no extra effort and no red tape to delay the implementation. It doesn't need a committee to approve it or a task force to look into it. It doesn't affect any commercial body that could lobby against it. I am passionate about finding a solution to the health epidemic and have thought of many ideas, most on proper analysis don't stand up. This is different.

On debating this idea recently, one common issue came up. What about the children who aren't fit. Won't they be bullied? Won't their confidence, morale and overall mental health be affected? It is unfair to single those unfit students out.

Is it a valid argument? Yes and no. I was that student. I played sports but I was generally the least fit on the team. I vividly remember being pushed around the laps by my coach in first year, struggling to complete the distance.

If you are unfit, your confidence, morale, productivity, work rate and actually everything around you is affected.

If we as a nation continue to shy away from change out of fear and worry, fear of confronting the fact that we are heavier, more unhealthy, more unfit than ever before and getting worse every year, then guess what, it's going to get worse.

Those who are unfit need the support, encouragement, help and plan from their parents, teachers, friends, siblings and anyone else around them. If you measure something, regardless of the result, then you can change it. If the student is unfit in first year, you rally around them to change that fact. It's remeasured and it improves.Just like any other subject, your fitness level should be a subject.

Here is my understanding of the learning process of subjects over the course of the six-year secondary school cycle:

* You are assessed each year, either continuously or yearly

* You learn about the subject each year

* You are graded each year

* If you have a problem with the subject you are helped by those around you, even taking grinds if required

* You have a teacher to help you learn each year, the aim is to improve your knowledge

* In sixth year, you aim to do your best, get the required points for your college course

Now I am not a teacher, I did my Leaving Cert in 2000, so things may have changed. But this is what I believe a subject to be. Your fitness should and could very easily be a subject.

Certainly, it goes without saying, there would need to be an allowance for those who for medical reasons can not complete the test, but just think what a positive, powerful impact this could have on our nation; on our schools; on everything from confidence, morale, health, fitness and ability to manage stress. Imagine the impact it would have on the mental health of the nation.

Some of the best and most impactful policies we have had in Ireland are those that are the simplest. The smoking ban for instance has been a huge success story. I believe this is equally as simple. I am but a small cog in the machine, I am lucky to be able to write a column to get people thinking and talking. The real power lies in the secondary school unions, the principals, PE teachers, the Minister for Health, the Government, the President.

It will take someone with courage to step up to the mark and get it done, not just discuss it or start a panel to discuss it. If we continue to keep shying away, to hide from the fact that our health is getting worse, it will continue to do exactly that.

If you are one of those people who can make that change, touch base with me and let's talk.

Irish Independent