I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s been an election in Holyrood again. It’s been nearly five years since we last turned up at our local primary schools, full of excitement to take part in DEMOCRACY, put a cross in some boxes, and realised that this is the probably the most underwhelming experience in adult life. A hugely important decision, reduced to a little cross written in Ikea pencil.
Among the SNP’s bright ideas was that Scotland should be “the first ‘Daily Mile’ nation with roll out to nurseries, schools, colleges, universities and workplaces across the country.” This doesn’t seem like a terrible idea – schools that have already tried out the scheme, which basically involves making everyone run a mile a day, have seen growing levels of concentration and a decrease in the number of overweight pupil. Much as I hate to admit it, exercise is actually good for you, and we should probably do more of it. But for angsty, teenage Lauren, two periods of PE a week was quite enough, and not because of the physical strain: it was probably the most traumatic part of my high school experience.
In primary school, PE was fine. We ran around, jumped on benches and the ubiquitous blue mats, and if we were really lucky got to unleash the huge climbing frame that spent most of the year tied firmly to the wall. When we found out the Catholic high school along the road had a swimming pool, we were so jealous that some of my classmates probably considered converting. But by the time I had reached high school, the idea of appearing in front of my class in a swimming costume was horrifying. Hairs and curves had grown, and I didn’t want anyone to see them. Getting changed with the other girls I’d put on a brave face, but wished I could hide my ever-growing chest. By S3 I had reached an F cup, and my expensive bras had to be sensible and more than a little bit granny-ish. I was painfully embarrassed by their thick straps and the greying fabric from too many washes. A few of us girls tried to get away with wearing our black tights under our gym shorts, to hide the legs we thought would offend the rest of the class: our teacher had no time for this and told us it was “unhygienic”.
Much worse, though, were the activities themselves. As girls, we had to do gymnastics while the boys ran around outside with a football. Usually this involved making up short routines and demonstrating them in front of the class. Unfortunately, I couldn’t manage the simplest handstand, and so dreaded my turn and how ashamed I’d feel when the rest of the class saw my failure. I was bad at badminton, awful at athletics. While the rest of my class made attempts at the high jump, I found myself running towards the bar then stopping abruptly because I just didn’t understand how I was supposed to manipulate my body into crossing it. My unsympathetic teacher just implied I wasn’t trying hard enough. I was never trying hard enough.
The problem with compulsory exercise in schools is that there is no provision made whatsoever for those who are bad at it, or unable to take part for a variety of reasons. What will happen to kids who use wheelchairs, for example, when the rest of their class is out running their ‘Daily Mile’? Dyspraxia is still a fairly little-known learning difficulty, and despite almost 10% of children in the UK showing signs of it, many of those who struggle with the condition are never diagnosed. If you struggle with spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination, PE can become a regular public humiliation. The only time I ever came close to blows with someone at high school was with a girl who ruthlessly and relentlessly laughed at my inability to perform simple tasks in gymnastics, or my tendency to drop a ball (or even lunge in the complete wrong direction and fail to catch it at all).
Sport is one of the only areas remaining in schools where pupils’ different natural abilities are often not respected: someone in the bottom maths set wouldn’t be compared with someone in the top, and told they’re just not trying hard enough to improve. To the horror of my sixteen year old self, I have grown to think that PE is a crucial part of the curriculum, but I wish that instead of spending years trying to keep up with the rest of my basketball team, I could have worked away at my own pace on a cross trainer. When my school was donated some gym machines in my fifth year, I started to dread PE less, knowing I wouldn’t have to perform for the rest of my class. To get more children and young people enjoying exercise, removing the competitive element could be a huge step forward. A compulsory ‘Daily Mile’ might keep kids fit, but it won’t stop them from bullying the classmate who always comes last.
[Lauren Cummings –@__laurenC]
Image: The Telegraph