Boris Johnson made the headlines once again after urging schools to provide students with two hours of PE a day as part of an ‘Olympic Legacy’.
Perhaps the Mayor has got himself a little too caught up in the Olympic spirit. Perhaps he is floating a radical policy to keep his name in lights, and capitalise on his London 2012 ratings boost. Whatever his reasons for announcing this now, he has sparked an important debate that needs to be had over how we make our children healthier, happier, and more active.
The ‘two hours’ pledge is clearly a non-starter. There is no room in the curriculum timetable to accommodate such a scheme. Yet a little exercise every day can go a long way. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US demonstrated that school-based physical activity had a positive effect on academic performance. Among the observed benefits, the researchers found that increased time in PE classes can help children’s attention and concentration, improve classroom behaviour, and heighten academic aspirations, alongside the obvious health benefits like reducing the likelihood of developing obesity or diabetes in later life.
Incorporating more physical activity into the school day requires a broad approach to education reform. Extra PE classes cannot be shoehorned into the curriculum, and nor should they be. So schools should be given the extra time they need to add more exercise onto the timetable. One way to do this would be to lengthen the school year. At present, the English school year lasts 190 days. In Italy and the Netherlands, the average is 200 days. Both countries score more highly on UNICEF’s index of child wellbeing.
While many factors contribute to these scores, what they suggest is that lengthening the school year does not have an adverse affect on child wellbeing. And if the extra time is used to increase the provision of physical exercise, then school children can only benefit from such a change.
Progressive policies need to be evidence-based and formulated with the aim of furthering the ability of individuals to achieve their potential. Two months ago, researchers at the Universities of Strathclyde and Newcastle stated that “There is an urgent need for interventions, at home and at school, which will help primary school children become more physically active,” after a study showed that some eight to 10-year-olds were active for only 4% of the day.
The research shows that school children are not getting enough exercise, and the science demonstrates that the rewards for pupils, teachers, and parents of increased school-based physical activity are potentially enormous.
Boris may have got the debate off to a poor start, but that is no reason to ignore it. Progressives should embrace the vision behind the Mayor’s proposal and make the increased provision of exercise at schools a reality.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog