Time to scrap P.E. targets for schools

The SNP government in Scotland has come under fire – again – for missing its self-imposed target that every child do two hours of formal P.E. a week. Only 35% of primaries and 23% of secondaries have achieved the two hour goal.

But why have the target at all? What’s it actually achieving? Surely it’s sensible to only impose this sort of national target when there’s clear evidence of benefit.

Will two hours of P.E. make our young people more lithe and reduce obesity? Not according to the evidence.

A study published in the BMJ journal Archives for Disease in Childhood* last month concluded that

Physical inactivity appears to be the result of fatness rather than its cause. This reverse causality may explain why attempts to tackle childhood obesity by promoting Physical Activity have been largely unsuccessful.

Government research published in 2006 found no significant difference in obesity levels between children who exercised and those who didn’t.

The same research was unable to find any difference in obesity levels between children who ate their five portions a day and those who fell well short.

The strongest predictor of obesity in children turned out to be having two obese parents, though whether the relationship is causal and whether it’s genetic or environmental wasn’t explored.

If the evidence doesn’t support more P.E. making our children slimmer, why else might we want to do it?

Exercise and sport can be very positive and have all sorts of benefits, especially in later life. It can be a fun, healthy and social activity. We also want to identify those with a real talent and nuture them to become the sports stars of the future.

But there’s a world of difference between fun, social exercise and forcing every child in every school to do two hours of formal P.E. each week, regardless of the priorities and ethos of the school and the needs of the individual.

The kids who enjoy sport anyway will do it whatever. Most of my son’s primary school friends play and practise their chosen sports (football, cricket, tennis, basketball…) for at least a couple of hours a week, and that’s on top of dashing about in the playground every break time.

And for those young people who don’t find themselves motivated to take up sport – is forcing them to do more P.E. really going to change that? There may be occasions when it’s the right thing to do, but surely that should be up to the school.

On the evidence we have available to us, a centrally imposed two hours P.E. a week, whether the edict is from Holyrood or Whitehall, simply can’t be justified.

Schools should be set free to use their own judgement in how to best fit formal physical exercise and sport into the curriculum and shouldn’t be criticised for failing to meet arbitrary, meaningless and ineffective goals.

* “Fatness leads to inactivity, but inactivity does not lead to fatness: a longitudinal study in children (EarlyBird 45)” by B S Metcalf, J Hosking, A N Jeffery, L D Voss, W Henley and T J Wilkin. The paper can be read for free with a 30 day trial online subscription to the journal.

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12 Comments

  • Good article. But:

    “The same research was unable to find any difference in obesity levels between children who ate their five portions a day and those who fell well short.”

    The clear science and original purpose behind 5 portions had nothing to do with obesity. It is just a healthy living thing.

  • Andrew Suffield 12th Jul '10 - 11:57am

    And the same thing for weight: regular exercise doesn’t really have much effect, and getting children to have regular exercise is not about controlling their weight. It’s just good for their general health. I don’t know why you’re so interested in obesity.

    A more interesting observation about children who aren’t motivated: school PE typically consists of spending six weeks doing something you enjoy, and the rest of the year doing things you hate, because that’s how they set up the classes. It is unsurprising that they have an overall negative reaction. A more effective PE programme would let you do just the parts you like.

  • I’m shocked they can’t even do 2 hours a week! There must be something substantially wrong with a school that cannot rota 2 hrs exercise within a week so there is a very good reason for the target – to change head teachers attitudes. When I was a lad… we had a 2 hour games and 1 hour PE every week at my school

  • Iain Roberts 12th Jul '10 - 12:40pm

    @Andrew – tackling childhood obesity was the rationale behind enforcing the two hours from the centre, which is why I’ve addressed that issue. The principle being that there should be a very good reason, supported by the evidence, for these central dictats on how schools arrange their timetables.

    @Henry – you’re right, eating your greens is a good thing. But there’s no doubt that it’s all got mixed in with the (largely mythical) childhood obesity epidemic we’re supposedly facing and the 2006 report suggests that link may be mistaken.

  • paul barker 12th Jul '10 - 1:07pm

    My experience of P.E. & that of many younger People ive asked is that it was a great excuse for bullying. The only good thing about it was creating a temporary bond between the fatties, the weeds & the nerds. Teaching us valuable lessons about prejudice & solidarity I suppose.

  • The purpose of this target wasn’t to impose more PE on schools, it was an attempt to ring-fence existing PE provision which had been steadily dwindling over the years under pressure from examinable subjects.

  • I have to admit that sport in school is an area where my liberalism comes a little unstuck. The DIC study is interesting and useful in helping to understand why intervention may be less successful than expected. At the same time, I think it is worthwhile involving moderate to vigorous exercise in schools at all ages as, on top of the weight control, exercise is useful for reducing stress and promoting general cardiovascular health. It should be noted that the DIC study doesn’t use a control group so there is an element of self-selection in there, making it hard to be conclusive about the causal relationship. Also it only looks at kids up to 10 years old and I think body fat distribution doesn’t really settle down until after puberty (does it?). But getting into the habit of exercising and gaining skills in sports at that age should hopefully encourage kids to maintain an active lifestyle in their teenage and adult years (though picking appropriate sports and tackling bullying are, of course, important).

    My own instinct is that 2 hours a week is still too little.

  • Compulsory PE in schools is a species of child abuse (a form of torture, some would call it) and something no liberal should support. What we have to confront is the following: (1) the discredited hokum that the abuse is somehow good for the victims; (2) the unfortunate tendency of sport enthusiasts to want to force the unwilling to participate in their favoured pastimes; and (3) the assumption that young people do not deserve the same kind of rights and respect as adults.

  • Andrew Suffield 12th Jul '10 - 10:35pm

    My experience of P.E. & that of many younger People ive asked is that it was a great excuse for bullying. The only good thing about it was creating a temporary bond between the fatties, the weeds & the nerds.

    This one invariably turns out to be an instance of what I mentioned earlier: forcing people into exercise based on competitive sports, when a different form of exercise would have been far more appropriate for them.

    Mind you, you could say what you said of the whole school experience, really, couldn’t you. We already do curtail choices for children and inevitably put them through some stuff they don’t like, just by making them go.

    Much of the time, this is justified. Studying history is not an alternative to studying maths; doing both is beneficial. In the case of PE subtypes, that mostly doesn’t apply. Making somebody play rugby instead of going running is probably not a useful thing to do.

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