A real vision for school sport

PE and school sport

It is fair to say that former world champion rower and Olympic medallist Cath Bishop is unimpressed by the recent government promises regarding school sport. She questions how much of what was announced is actually new and bemoans another missed opportunity “to connect PE into a broader perspective and proactive strategy towards health”. Her plea for a “fundamental rethink of PE and youth sport” – as well as her broader ambition to re-define what we mean by success – chimes with the thinking that underpins the Life-Based Learning approach to children’s education and development.

Cath Bishop was a winner at the World Rowing Championships in 2003 and competed at three Olympic Games, winning a silver medal in 2004. She has a PhD in contemporary German literature and was a diplomat for more than a decade. She now has a consultancy business specialising in leadership and team performance. Her book The Long Win: The Search for a Better Way to Succeed, published in 2020, explored the consequences of the win-at-all-costs approach and argued for a different way of defining success.

Bishop wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian newspaper, published on 16 March 2023, in response to the UK government’s recent announcement on physical education in schools. The measures announced on International Women’s Day aim to create equal school sport opportunities for girls and ensure a minimum of two hours of physical education per week. The online headline above Bishop’s article referred to the government’s pledge as a “whimper”. The print edition called it “neither new nor fit for purpose”.

After asking why it needed “a sustained high-profile campaign from England’s elite women footballers to get the government to address something so fundamental to health”, Bishop questions how much has actually changed, pointing out that there is already government guidance that schools should provide a minimum of two hours of physical education a week. She says that the funding announced is not new and that there is nothing additional to support the government’s equal-access commitment – a key aspect of the package – “despite confused reporting suggesting there is”.

She goes on to describe the existing model of school sport and indeed the concept of ‘physical education’ itself outdated and “unfit for purpose”. She points out that the “classic offerings” – such as rugby and football – are not for everyone: “…I also want everyone who doesn’t feel part of those sports to have a route to a healthy, active life.”

Though a promise of two hours a week of PE is obviously important, what matters even more, she says, is what happens during those two hours and whether the infrastructure and resources are there to make a difference: “…are existing structures in school able to adapt? I heard nothing about investment to help schools with limited changing rooms, dilapidated facilities and a lack of staff.”

Bishop urges us to regard sport and physical activity as an integral part of a young person’s overall development: “We have siloed off PE in our schools for years, seeing it as something additional or optional, rather than thinking about how fundamental movement is to a young person’s growth and development.”

Meanwhile, Bishop’s 2020 book –The Long Win: The Search for a Better Way to Succeed – suggests an alternative vision for how we measure success. The three bullet points below are adapted from a summary of her book that appears on her website.

  • Developing a sense of purpose and meaning beyond simply coming first or hitting short-term targets
  • Focusing on constant learning, progress and personal growth rather than outcomes and extrinsic rewards
  • Prioritising cooperation and collaboration over competition, creating authentic relationships rather than transactional ones

Life-Based Learning

Much of Bishop’s critique chimes with that of Life-Based Learning (LBL). For example, she bemoans the absence of a holistic plan that puts life-based goals at the forefront of a long-term perspective:

We need to start seeing school sport within the broader context of a healthy life rather than quadrennial elite tournament results. This can’t only be about inspiring the next generation of Lionesses. That is only one part of the picture. We need school to imbue pupils with a love of physical activity, to feel good moving their bodies, to see movement as key to a natural, healthy life and a vital support mechanism to help in the difficult times, as well as an integral part of the good times.

Cath Bishop

LBL is an approach to education and development for children and young people in which the life challenges that we all face become the focus of a fully rounded, life-based approach to learning. Promoting children’s physical health and wellbeing – and therefore helping to improve long-term health outcomes and turn around the current grim projections – is one such challenge.

A key premise of LBL is the need to free ourselves from an obsession with subject-based learning, which throws up barriers between one subject and the next, limiting our ability to think flexibly and to focus on what really matters.

LBL also rooted in the idea that we need to think of the body, the mind and the emotions holistically. We need healthy bodies to keep our minds alert and our emotional wellbeing vibrant. Bodily health is closely linked to maintaining an active and alert mind throughout life and possessing high levels of emotional resilience.

Image at the head of this article by Francine Sreca from Pixabay.

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