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Debate: Compulsory physical education

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Should Physical Education in schools be compulsory?

Background and context

In the UK, Physical Education (PE) is compulsory in state schools until the age of 16 – that is, that sports are compulsory for as long as education is compulsory. Every year, more and more parents complain to their children’s schools about PE; they believe that their children shouldn’t have to participate in physical activity if they don’t want to. Proponents of PE, however, believe that it is a crucial element of all-round schooling – and our society’s well-being. This article is amended with thanks to NCYD debating teams from Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls, James Allen’s Girls School, St Paul’s Girls School and Francis Holland School.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Participation in sport promotes health. Government is, or should be, concerned with the health of its citizens. Encouraging physical activity in the young through compulsory PE fights child obesity and contributes to forming lifelong habits of exercise. This doesn’t have to be through traditional team sports; increasingly schools are able to offer exercise in the form of swimming, gymnastics, dance, weight training, use of a multigym, aerobics, etc.

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No

Students should be allowed a choice. Lots of children don’t want to do this. If their parents agree, why should they be forced to (or forced to lie in producing a sick note)? It is different from any other lesson – it is about what one does with one’s body. In any case, it is a red herring to say that PE makes any serious difference to people’s health. There are plenty of more effective ways of ensuring a healthy population than pushing children round a freezing sports pitch once a week; not least would be addressing the disgusting diets our young have today, and encouraging walking or cycling to school rather than total reliance on the car.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Physical Education is an important part of holistic schooling. PE is an aspect of school being about more than just book learning – it is about educating the whole person, a holistic education that betters us in an all-round sense, rather than a merely academic experience. Some aspects of physical education are vital for future wellbeing, e.g. being able to swim, learning to lift heavy weights safely. Arguments about cost seem petty when compared to this aim – and also misguided, since PE departments would continue to exist to serve those that chose to study PE voluntarily, even if the subject were no longer to be compulsory. Arguments about the size of classes may well be correct, but these suggest better funding for PE rather than abandonment of the commitment to public health.

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No

Sport is a waste of school time and resources. One or two PE lessons a week make very little difference to an individual’s health – but a huge difference to a school’s budget. It creates a whole extra department in schools, wasting a great deal of money and time that could be better spent on academic lessons. It also requires schools buildings to be surrounded by a large amount of land for playing fields, making it prohibitively expensive to build new schools in urban areas. The quality of teaching is low, as students are taught in huge classes. On the other hand, the quality of teaching and of equipment goes up if there are fewer (but keener) students taking the subject. Frankly, given the average current pupil-teacher ration, the subject is not merely without positive purpose – it may be dangerous to students who are normally not properly supervised.

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Argument #3

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Yes

School sport is about discovering gifts. If not driven by PE, many in society wouldn’t find out that they had a talent for a sport, or even that they enjoyed it. Once experienced, sport can be enjoyed for life, while for some it will provide the possibility of a college scholarship and even a career. Individuals are not humiliated in PE – if they are, the schools concerned should be brought to task just as they would be with regard to humiliation of students in any subject. Rather, as UNESCO says, the student should be helped to fulfil a level of attainment in sport that corresponds to his gifts.

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No

Students can ‘discover’ these delights outside of school, without ‘discovering’ the bullying that comes with PE more than with any other lesson. They are more likely to obtain specialist coaching at sports clubs. Furthermore, for every child that ‘discovers a gift,’ there are many that suffer. PE is unique, in that ‘failure’ in its lessons involves physical humiliation. This is bad for children and especially bad for adolescents, who have more than enough body issues without this.

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Argument #4

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Yes

The quest for national sporting achievement begins in schools. If we don’t have compulsory PE, it is much harder to pick out athletes to represent our country on a wider stage. Even with a ‘sports academy’ model run along Australian lines, it’s much easier to find suitable individuals with a full sports program in every school. State education is not just about aiding the individual – it’s also about the state getting a good return on its investment – in a well-educated populace to drive business and entrepreneurialism etc. This applies equally in sports, too.

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No

Schools aren’t supposed to be about fostering achievers for the state – that smacks of Stalinism. Schools should be tailored to the individual – if the individual student doesn’t want to participate in sports, they shouldn’t have to. If we allowed such national aims to be considered in schools, would we consent to humiliation of those that did badly in maths lessons, to encourage their achievement in maths (and thus business skills?) Of course not. But we allow that in PE.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Without school support, sports will collapse. If full classes aren’t made up, then team activities will end by sheer lack of numbers, no matter if several very talented individuals are at the school (or even potentially talented – they’ll never know without the program). If voluntary take-up of sport in schools is too low, then schools will shut down PE programmes so that there is no choice at all. Not everyone is academic: why deprive those talented sports students of their one chance to shine?

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No

Forcing children that don’t want to play to make up teams in order to allow others to shine smacks of rigid education from a bygone era. In any case, in an increasingly litigious age, a compulsory rather than voluntary sports program is a liability. More and more schools are avoiding the very team games (e.g. rugby, soccer, hockey, football) the proposition discusses here, due to the (realistic) fear of lawsuits.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Sport is different to, say Latin – it encompasses life choices (most importantly, a concern for physical fitness, but also working in a team etc) that ought to be encouraged in all students. Extra classes for interested students can take place separately, and often do in the form of fixtures with other schools, championships etc. Sport shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to academia, an either/or – it should be a part of every student’s life in addition to their other studies. If the opposition is correct about the heavy workload involved in schools, then students are that much more likely not to choose PE in an environment where it is voluntary, and the quality of our children’s health will be even worse. Much better to keep being healthy compulsory, and reform the pressures elsewhere in the curriculum.

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No

Successful sporting nations like Australia realise that sports, like any other specialised subjects, are best taught to selected groups that display both talent and interest in the field – forcing all to compete holds back the able and punishes the less able. The right way to go is to liberate those that don’t want to participate, and allow those that are extremely keen to go to academies that focus their talents more efficiently than a regular school ever could. Furthermore, our children are burdened enough in schools already, especially at the older end of the system, with multiple examinations. PE simply adds, needlessly, to this hectic schedule.

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Argument #7

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Yes

If not forced to exercise in youth, many will never think to do it in adulthood. This is no idle question: obesity in the UK is rising rapidly. Individuals have no right to ‘choice’ about this: they’re being compelled to attend school, to take the lessons the state says they should take. The state doesn’t just impose a curricular compulsion, since physical attendance is forced – so there’s nothing unique in principle about enforced PE. Indeed, what can be more important as an aim for our schools than to encourage public health? It is in recognition of that fact, that in 1978 UNESCO recognised PE as ‘as essential element of lifelong education.’ If PE is made voluntary, it seems obvious that many students – against their long term interests, and the long term interests of society – will choose not to. That will damage this essential element of education, and damage public health. It is true that the health of society is not perfect even with compulsory PE – but how much worse might it be without it?

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No

We acknowledge the right of individuals (or their parents) to control their own bodies – when they have an operation, where they go, what they do. Why is this any different? This discussion should be held in the real world: students actually aren’t compelled to attend PE classes, as ‘sick notes’ are produced with alarming regularity by parents complicit in their child’s wish to avoid this lesson. The aim of ‘compulsory PE’ isn’t being fulfilled at present in any case, and greater efforts to enforce it will only result in more deceit, or children missing school for the entire day – or, in the most extreme cases, being withdrawn from state education by parents unwilling to allow their children to be forced into something they don’t wish to do. Instead, we should simply abandon the whole exercise and allow PE to become voluntary. The UNESCO charter stresses the right to PE, and was addressed to nations that failed to provide it at all – it was not meant to suggest that individuals should be compelled to do it in nations that do.

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Argument #8

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Yes

Sport helps to forge character. Playing team sports builds character and encourages students to work with others. It teaches children how to win and lose with good grace and builds a strong school spirit through competition with other institutions. It is often the experience of playing on a team together which builds the strongest friendships at school, which endure for years afterwards.

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No

Many say the same benefits derive from the common endurance of prison… In particular, injuries sustained through school sport and the psychological trauma of being bullied for sporting ineptitude can mark people for years after they have left school. Teamwork can be better developed through music, drama, community projects, etc. without the need to encourage an ultra-competitive ethos.

See also

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