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Column: Ireland needs to reduce childhood obesity, so why are schools cutting PE hours?

Our society has epidemic levels of obesity – so why is the Department of Education reducing the importance of PE in our schools? asks Fergal Lyons.

Fergal Lyons

A SHOCKING 10 per cent of post-primary school pupils receive the minimum of 120 minutes of physical exercise (PE) per week, as recommended by the Department of Education and Skills (DES).

More worryingly, this is the same Department of Education and Skills which has recently recommended in its new Junior Certificate Framework that PE now take the diminished status of a ‘short course’, with the time allocation of just 100 hours over a ‘two or three year period’.

With schools on average providing approximately 150 hours of PE over three years in the current Junior Certificate Curriculum, (a figure that would not meet the DES recommendations) it baffles as to how the Government can cut this time allocation for PE by potentially one third in the new Framework.

Obesity

So the question is: why? In a society where obesity is at epidemic levels and physical inactivity is at an all-time high, has the importance of PE in our schools been overlooked by a department which is saying one thing and doing quite another?

When you look at the figures, this just doesn’t make sense:

  • Three out of every four Irish adults, and four out of five Irish children, do not meet the Department of Health and Children’s National Physical Activity Guidelines (CSPPA, 2010)
  • The recent CSPPA report also showed that one in four children were unfit, overweight, or obese and had elevated blood pressure
  • Physical inactivity is the main cause for approximately 21–25 per cent of breast and colon cancers, 27 per cent of diabetes and 30 per cent of ischaemic heart disease burden in the EU (World Health Organisation, 2013)

It’s time to take action. The fact that the Government is currently focusing on so many health initiatives is completely at odds with their provision for physical education. How the Department of Education and Skills can recommend 120 minutes of PE per week in our secondary schools and not take action upon the fact that only 10 per cent of schools actually deliver this is quite unbelievable.

Change is needed. Schools need to provide every student with the recommended 120 minutes, and at a bare minimum, a double class of PE per week, every week, for all six years of their secondary school lives. The department needs to ensure that PE is a mandatory requirement on all school timetables.

Priority

English, Irish, Mathematics, and in more recent times SPHE, are a requirement on every school curriculum. Why, then, is this not the case for Physical Education? The International Council for Sports Science and Physical Education outlines the contribution PE can make to lifelong endeavours in physical activity:

Physical education in school is the most effective and inclusive means of providing all children, whatever their ability/disability, sex, age, cultural, race/ethnicity, religious or social background, with the skills, attitudes, values, knowledge and understanding for lifelong participation in physical activity and sport.

So, if PE was available to every student for a minimum of two classes per week, then there are two key questions that need answering…

Firstly, are there teachers out there to deliver it? I believe there are. Gone is the day of the science teacher/GAA coach taking a class out to PE with his tracksuit pants tucked into his Doc Martin shoes. With three universities now graduating 160 PE teachers each year, there has never been so many highly-qualified, skilled and enthusiastic teachers to deliver a fully educational broad and balanced PE curriculum.

Mandatory classes

The second key question, quite simply, is can we afford to implement a mandatory approach to PE in our schools?

The reality is – can we afford not to? At a very conservative level, a national action plan to increase the physical activity levels of 10 per cent of the nation (Population estimate of 4.5 million) could ultimately result in annual savings of between €67.5 – €135 million. The social aspects of sport (volunteering, subscriptions to sports clubs, attendance at sports events) had a combined economic value for Ireland of €1.4 billion or 1.26 per cent of GNP in 2003.

Put simply, young people need a minimum of two hours mandatory high-quality PE each week to fight rising levels of inactivity, obesity, type 1 diabetes, depression and other mental health concerns.

Clearly, PE can’t do this alone, but it is a vital cog in the wheel. To tackle these health issues, we need to create opportunities for 5 to 18-year-olds to participate in high-quality sport and physical activities in three interlinked places:  PE, after-school sport, and local clubs. A three-pronged attack.

This requires joined-up thinking with sport and physical activity professionals working together across society. Physical Education teachers are uniquely placed to teach skills that pupils will need to participate in physical activity outside of the PE class and skills they will need for a lifetime of physical activity.

So the biggest question remains. With the proven health, social, mental and economic benefits of physical activity and education, why is the Government hindering rather than helping the delivery of PE to the pupils in our schools?

Fergal Lyons is the President of Physical Education Association of Ireland.

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Read: One in four three-year-olds are overweight, study shows>

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Fergal Lyons

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