Monday 11 December 2017

Fergal Lyons: Lack of PE provision damages students' health

Low level of physical activity in schools may get even lower.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn

Fergal Collins

In 2009, Professor Thom McKenzie wrote that "school physical education was the pill not taken". This seems to be the case in Ireland with recent worrying developments in the provision of physical education.

A new framework for the Junior Certificate has been devised by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, and will be implemented in September. The framework provides an innovative way of looking at education in our secondary schools. Key features of the framework include project work, ongoing assessment and increased autonomy for schools, allowing them to design and deliver a curriculum to suit their students' needs.

However, in the process of developing this framework, physical education (PE) has somehow fallen through the cracks.

The new Junior Certificate proposes the delivery of 100 hours of PE over a two-year period in the form of a 'PE Short Course'. This move allocates less time to PE. In the majority of cases schools offer a double class (or two single classes) of PE per week over a three-year period at Junior Cycle level. This equates to 147 hours. The change means a potential decrease of almost one third in the time students aged between 12 and 16 will spend learning physical education.

This lack of provision for PE is worrying, and when reflecting upon European figures, it becomes clear that the health and well-being of students may not have been considered when this new Junior Certificate framework was designed.

Eurydice, the network responsible for providing information on, and analyses of European education systems and policies in 36 countries, published a comprehensive analysis of Physical Education in schools in March. The report positioned Ireland third from last in Europe. When compared to our counterparts, Ireland offers 1.2 hours of PE per week, as opposed to France (2.8), Portugal (2.8), Hungary (2.4), Germany (2.2) and the UK (2). For a country that prides itself on its education system, this is an uncharacteristic shortcoming.

It is these international figures that make the recent developments in education so baffling. Given our standing in Europe, it might be expected that the NCCA would make a sincere effort to increase the provision for PE in schools. However, contrary to all international trends where the health and well-being of the student is becoming more central to the education process, Ireland is instead cutting the time allocation to PE by almost one third.

The implications of this on today's teenagers are compelling. Clearly, it will exacerbate an already dire situation:

* Three out of every four Irish adults and four out of five Irish children do not meet the Department of Health and Children's National Physical Activity Guidelines (CSPPA, 2010).

* The CSPPA report also showed that one in four children is unfit, overweight or obese and had elevated blood pressure.

* In 2012, The Lancet medical journal reported that in the Republic of Ireland, 53.2 per cent of the population do insufficient exercise.

* Physical inactivity is the main cause for approximately 21-25 per cent of breast and colon cancers, 27 per cent of diabetes and 30 per cent of ischaemic heart disease burden in the EU (World Health Organisation, 2013).

* Ninety per cent of people with diabetes have type-two diabetes, which is largely the result of excess body weight and inactivity. In Ireland, over a 12-month period in 1999/2000, the health care costs for treating the condition were estimated at €580.2m. This equated to 10 per cent of the total health expenditure, but it is expected that this will increase to 25per cent by 2040.

When designing and implementing education policy the student must be at the centre of all considerations. In a society where the problem of obesity is foremost in the minds of all citizens and physical activity levels are at an all-time low, physical education must be part of the solution.

PE alone will not save our teenagers (who will live shorter lives because of this physical inactivity and lack of access to PE), but it is one vital cog in the wheel if we are to turn current trends around and reverse childhood obesity, increase activity levels and develop a culture of healthy living.

PE is taught by highly educated teachers who engage in professional development to keep up to date with new teaching and learning techniques. Gone is the day of the science teacher/GAA coach taking a class out to PE with his tracksuit pants tucked into his Doc Martins. With three universities now graduating 180 PE teachers each year, there has never been so many highly qualified and enthusiastic teachers to deliver a balanced curriculum. Dance, gymnastics, orienteering, health studies, functional movement, diet and lifestyle, field games and team challenges are but a few of the areas covered in a modern-day PE class.

The focus now is to prepare our students for a lifelong involvement in physical activity through exposure to a wide range of sporting genres, and more importantly to educate our students on what it is to be healthy, fit and active. Only then can they be competent participants in physical activity.

In a time when PE has never been more essential in terms of physical, social and emotional wellbeing, as well as the proven positive impact on mental health, why is the NCCA cutting the time allocation for the subject? Our students need PE. They need exposure to a variety of sporting and physical activity endeavours. They need an opportunity to develop the physical movement skills necessary to participate, and our society needs a better understanding of what it is to live a healthy and active lifestyle. Physical Education in Irish secondary schools is truly in a perilous position.

Currently, there are some excellent initiatives being developed in the area of health and physical activity. Dr Stephanie O'Keeffe and the Department of Health have just launched a Healthy Ireland Strategy 2013-2025, Senator Eamonn Coghlan has been leading a programme called the 'Points for Life Initiative' to improve physical activity levels in primary schools, and a new cross-border initiative, All Island All Active, launched by Dr Fiona Chambers and Prof Deirdre Brennan which aims to increase activity levels to three in five citizens by 2025. However, PE in our secondary schools has been overlooked.

It is time for the Government to take responsibility for the well-being of students in their teenage years.

Fergal Lyons teaches in Ardscoil Rís, Limerick and is president of the Physical Education Association of Ireland

Irish Independent

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