Sports policy needs to move with the times
Outdated approach is causing children to give up on exercise, writes John Greene
Many years ago a veteran teacher in a respected secondary school had his first experience of a parent-teacher meeting. These meetings are all the rage now but back then they were a new and somewhat unproven phenomenon. After a long and stressful session with the parents, the teacher turned to a colleague in the staff room and joked, "Do you know, all these years I've been hitting the wrong ones!"
This story came to mind last week after the publication of 'Keeping Them In The Game', a report on participation and drop-out rates in sport and physical exercise in Ireland. The first notable fall-off occurs when children leave primary school and move into the second-level system and while it is no secret that there are huge failings in that system, this report shows that parents are at fault too.
Through each year of secondary school the number of teenagers either exercising or taking part in sport goes down, and the fall-off is more pronounced with girls. Of course there are many reasons for this decline, and you have to factor in typically rebellious teenage behaviour, but the drop-out rate becomes more pronounced in the years of the two big State exams, the Junior Cert and the Leaving Cert.
There is a culture around these two exams, that they are the be all and end all of teenage life. Of course they are extremely important, but the idea that the only way they can be conquered is by dropping, say, sport, is known to be nonsense. The worrying thing is that many students appear to believe it is the right thing to do. Where are they getting this idea from? From their teachers, or their parents, or both?
There is enough evidence to show a positive association between playing sport and exam performance, and yet teenagers are encouraged to pull back to study harder. And although it is generally the case that children from higher socio-economic backgrounds are much more likely to be physically active than those from a lower socio-economic background, this report finds that "the gap narrows and even reverses in sixth [Leaving Cert] year. Students from middle-class backgrounds may be more likely to be affected by the points race for third-level places."
It continues: "The impact of impending exams also alters the relationship between participation in sport and other leisure activities. While students who participate in arts-related activities are generally more likely to play sport, this effect disappears or even reverses during exam years. The negative effect of television and video games on participation also strengthens in exam years. All these findings suggest that as exams approach, students' behaviour reflects time constraints and that something has to give."
This also highlights a major flaw in our education policy. Not alone is physical education not given serious consideration, it is almost discouraged by the current system. The introduction of sport to the Junior Cert in a few years' time is welcome but doesn't go far enough because it will be an optional subject, so those not inclined towards exercise will still slip through the net.
It is not over-simplifying the debate by saying that schools are part of the problem. In a nutshell, our second-level schools do not provide children with enough exercise. This report notes: "The overall decline in participation is greater for extra-curricular sport at school than for activities undertaken outside of school." In other words, community-based organisations are filling the gap. The most recent available information shows that across all of Europe only Malta, Spain and Turkey devote less time to PE in secondary schools than Ireland.
Given the level of cutbacks in education this is hardly surprising, and education policy-makers need to shoulder a lot of the blame, but most of these difficulties are systemic and pre-date this recession. It reinforces the belief that the State handed over responsibility for the provision of sport, or physical education, to the volunteer sector, just as it handed over responsibility for education to the Church.
A further worrying point to note is that the data in this report comes before the impact of the cuts to education spending in the last few years so there is no reason to think the situation will improve any time soon.
This detailed study, the work of Pete Lunn, Ailish Kelly and Nick Fitzpatrick for the Irish Sports Council and the ESRI, looks at exercise patterns in our population from the age of 10 through to old age. The central message about the importance of exercise is getting through. The problem is not in getting people involved in sport or exercise (nine out of every 10 children in fifth and sixth class at primary school play sport), it is keeping them at it through secondary school and into early adulthood.
"Traditionally, the role of sports policy has been to build venues, to support national sports stars and the mostly amateur organisations from which they emerge, and to enthuse the next generation of children," say the authors.
"Worthwhile though these tasks may be, if sports policy is to grow into its evolving and more wide-ranging public health role, it must reorient itself towards the primary goal of increasing the numbers of people who actively participate. Modern sports policy-makers need to grapple with problems such as getting overweight middle-aged people to take exercise, finding sporting activities that enthuse teenage girls more than getting muddy chasing balls in the rain, or convincing stressed-out busy parents that they can still find at least some time each week to play sport. In sum, modern lifestyles make sports policy increasingly relevant to health and well-being, but they also demand that it adapts to the modern era."
All of which makes continued resistance to a joined-up approach to this whole area look all the more outdated. The State needs to adapt to the modern era too.