Sinead Kissane: PE decision a giant leap for schools
There was something apt about the little-known term 'youthquake' being named 2017 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries in the same week it was announced that Physical Education will become an optional Leaving Cert subject.
'Youthquake' is defined as "a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people". This week's announcement about PE and its new status in the senior cycle of our secondary school educational system sounds like a significant cultural change for young people but does it go far enough?
PE in secondary school has long been shorthand for many things. It meant not having to endure a double class of chemistry and figuring out Le Chatelier's Principle or De Moivre's Theorem in Maths class (remember them? me neither).
PE was also a great alternative to being stuck to a desk and trying to use reverse psychology by putting up your hand but hoping not to be picked to answer a question on a subject you only half dabbled in while watching Home and Away the night before.
But there is no shorthand for PE in the long-awaited 49-page Physical Education Curriculum Specification which was released on Monday to announce PE as an optional Leaving Cert subject at both Higher and Ordinary level with the first phase of implementation to be introduced in around 50 schools from September 2018. At no point in the document is PE referred to as PE but instead it is always given its full title of Physical Education to emphasise and remind us of the potential of a subject which has been so undervalued and underutilised in our secondary school system.
Undervalued by those with the power to change in government but not, in my experience, by the teachers involved. When I went to Presentation Secondary School, Tralee in the 1990s, we were initially familiar with our PE teacher's name through the achievements of her husband Ogie on the football pitch. But Mrs Anne Moran brought such an energy and encouragement for PE and sport to an all-girls school that - irrespective of no Junior or Leaving Cert points on offer - her classes and time given to sport and school teams left a lasting impression.
So, finally, long after the first proposal for it to be made an examinable subject by PE teachers nearly 40 years ago, Physical Education has been upgraded, updated and upscaled to Leaving Cert stature. The other new curriculum announced on Monday was the Senior Cycle Physical Education Framework which is not for examination but when taken on by selected schools recommends "that a double period per week is made available as the minimum requirement for teaching senior cycle physical education".
Undoubtedly, these are progressive steps. But what about access for all? The key word in the blurb to announce these two new curriculums is "capacity" as schools must have the required facilities. "Access to suitable facilities including indoor and outdoor spaces for learning in Physical Education" is one of general criteria for schools to be selected to participate in the first phase.
What about schools which don't have the indoor sports hall or the technology which students will need, for example, to make the video for the Physical Activity Project which will comprise 20pc of the assessment for the new Leaving Cert PE subject (performance assessment equates to 30pc with a written examination 50pc of the overall weighting system)? The standard required for schools to participate in Leaving Cert PE will inevitably highlight problems that already exist where there might be a culture of non-participation in PE due to various reasons like a lack of facilities or a tradition of time being solely dedicated to Leaving Cert subjects in the senior cycle at the expense of PE.
This week's announcement will also only be as good as a government commitment to increase funding to schools to ensure every student has access to the standard of facility required to fulfil the new Physical Education Leaving Cert subject.
Brendan O'Malley, president of the Physical Education Association of Ireland (PEAI), welcomed this week's news but admits there's a long way to go.
"Of course, there's going to be issues with facilities, timetabling and all of that. But we've only levelled the playing field now," O'Malley says. "It must be remembered it's an optional subject for schools to take on. Not every school in the country offers Home Economics, not every school in the country offers Woodwork and Construction. It's optional if the school has the facilities.
"The PEAI is going to be lobbying the government to provide extra funding for schools in order to either upgrade or create new facilities and I think that's crucial. If we want to get LC PE as an exam subject across to every single student, which it should be, then the government are going to have to up the funding for PE in schools in Ireland," O'Malley adds.
"We believe that the Leaving Cert PE should be mandatory or part of the core curriculum for Leaving Cert students in the next few years because every student should be exposed to this. There's no reason why every student shouldn't know how your body works, why your body works, and how it interacts with exercise, that's a life skill in itself. That can only benefit us as a society in years and years to come. We won the battle. Now it's time to win the war."
What stands out reading through the Physical Education Curriculum Specification is its broadness and wide appeal. This new curriculum isn't just for the student who excels at playing sport but also for the student who has an interest in sport.
The subject will include tasks like the student picking three specific physical activities from six general groups: adventure activities, artistic and aesthetic activities, athletics, aquatics, games and personal exercise and fitness.
In the personal exercise and fitness category, for example, "learners are required to show evidence of their capacity to perform elements of a personal exercise and fitness programme designed to enhance either performance in a physical activity or health related physical fitness".
Fifth and sixth year students designing fitness programmes for themselves and learning how to teach others? Yes, yes, yes!
But the new curriculum also involves subjects like 'Ethics and Fair Play' which will involve studying "the importance of integrity, respect, fairness and equity in the context of the selected activities" and studying topics like anti-doping rules and therapeutic use exemptions - issues which are extremely relevant to modern-day sport.
"As PE teachers, we looked across the curriculum as it was and ethics and fair play never featured in any other subject to my knowledge," O'Malley points out.
"So, we're expecting our young people to participate in sport and to have respect for others and include others but it's not taught in any other area. So it will give the PE teacher and the student an opportunity to actually study this - why there is inclusion difficulties in Ireland, what we can do to eradicate this and so on. So, in two years' time we will have 1,250 students having that knowledge and background and that will only ever be viewed as a positive."
Leaving Certificate PE is designed to be taught in approximately 180 hours which is the equivalent of five suggested class periods a week. So what about the PE teachers who will have to teach this new curriculum? As well as incorporating it into timetables, schools may also have to increase staff numbers.
"When we heard the news it was exciting," Cathriona Hannafin, PE and Maths teacher at Avondale Community College, Rathdrum, said. "Here we just have one teacher but we will be moving towards getting a second PE teacher into the school because to deliver the programme you have to have more staff. We're lucky here in the school that we have the facilities to run it but I know in some neighbouring schools they wouldn't have the facilities to deliver it without investment maybe from the department."
It was a landmark week for Physical Education but the ball remains in the government court to make sure it becomes a Leaving Cert option for all students with a view to make it mandatory. Then, we might really see a significant cultural and sporting shift for the youth of Ireland in schools.