John Greene: Running every day can deliver huge benefits for our young at little cost to schools or parents
The story has been told many times before but it will never grow old. It's the one about the teacher in Scotland who thought her pupils didn't look like they could run, so she got them running. And, as someone said last week, in that single act the teacher changed thousands of lives, because eight years later the school's students are still running.
They run every single day. They call it their daily mile. And other primary schools in Scotland picked up on it and started a daily mile. England followed. And now - at last - Ireland is following too.
The Scottish teacher is Elaine Wylie and she was in St Brigid's National School in Castleknock last week to pass her story on to the teachers and pupils. The occasion was the pilot launch of the daily mile. St Brigid's is one of a number of Irish schools who have taken it on. The hope is that many more schools around the country will do likewise. In fact, what should happen is that every school starts a daily mile. All that's needed is the will to make it happen.
It all began in February 2012, when Wylie asked a class of 10-year-olds to run round the school playing field and discovered that most of them weren't able to. She settled on a simple plan: the children would run for 15 minutes every day. The results were remarkable.
"The children looked better, felt better and were much fitter," she says. Which of course sounds completely obvious - but if it's so obvious, why wasn't every school doing it?
"By the end of the spring term, five classes were doing the daily mile. By the end of summer term, all 12 classes were taking part. The nursery children (3-5-year-olds) joined in in early 2013. All 420 children were now doing the daily mile.
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"The improvements in the children's physical health were obvious. Of course, we could have predicted that running daily would make them fit, but what we didn't foresee were all the other equally important benefits to their mental, emotional and social health and well-being, which became apparent over time."
Now, over half a million children in the UK take part in the Daily Mile. The beauty of it is its simplicity. It doesn't cost anything either, which should appeal to the bureaucrats who keep such a tight grip on the educational purse strings. But then, when around 80 per cent of that budget is absorbed by salaries what chance is there of real progress?
We all know about the alarming obesity rate among Irish children, with around one-third now considered to be overweight or obese. And we know that the projections are that this will get worse if serious preventative action is not taken. The cost to the Exchequer of illnesses and diseases related to obesity - heart disease, diabetes, etc - is enormous, probably over €1bn each year. The cost of meaningful and lasting prevention is a fraction of that and yet the State still largely relies on the intervention of the volunteer sector to get children active.
The State, in fact, even turned its back on schools. Our commitment to physical education in schools has been laughable for a very long time. There is no doubt that the addition of PE to the Junior Cert syllabus and, more recently, the Leaving Cert syllabus is a hugely positive step in the right direction, but the real crisis now is with younger children because of the failures in the system at primary school level.
Writing in his book Living The Green Platform: Life-Changing Stories, Declan Coyle laments these failures, noting that we score among the worst in Europe for PE in primary schools. Reflecting on his own childhood, and the number of hours spent outdoors, he recalls it as a time of "pure joy, fun and excitement".
"Now," he continues, "children sit at home and play video games by themselves or maybe with the child next door . . . while still sitting in their own homes. We were born to run, hunt and gather but now we sit in our caves eating lots of cheap, fast, sugar-filled processed foods watching flickering screens."
All that's required to implement the Daily Mile in each school is the will to do it. Nobody expects that the Department of Education - given its appalling record on promoting PE - will be to the forefront of pushing it, so ultimately it will be down to each individual school to, eh, make the running on it. Parents clearly have a role too in helping and encouraging their school to do it. Thankfully, Athletics Ireland has stepped forward to drive the project and offer its expertise to help get it off the ground. And with Sport Ireland's backing, that brings the network of local sports partnerships into play too.
School principals should make contact with Athletics Ireland, or their county's LSP, and prepare to take the first steps by the beginning of the new school year in autumn. It's easy to make excuses - and certainly our weather and the lack of indoor facilities in so many schools offers a prime one - but that should not be acceptable. If they can achieve this in Scotland, it can be achieved here. The experience there has been that children respond well to the seasons, and that it builds resilience.
And although the effective cost of this is zero, the State cannot sit back and do nothing. Because schools need investment, they need proper facilities for children to exercise - outdoor and indoor - and it seems to me the perfect vehicle for this is the sports capital programme, or at least a greatly reimagined programme.
And the Department of Education should be making a significant contribution to the budget to allow schools to develop. Despite the criticisms of the programme, which have been largely at the political level, officials in the Department of Sport in Killarney have shown themselves over many years to be expert in administering it efficiently, and they can be trusted to deliver.
We need to give our children a chance, by whatever means necessary. As Declan Coyle says, then maybe "instead of getting fatter, our children will get fitter".
And the last word goes to one child in another of the pilot schools, Blennerville NS in Kerry: "The mile makes you more smiley."