Dame Kelly Holmes recently opined that the reason girls are resistant to doing PE and sports in school is because of the dirty changing rooms and the archaic costume they must wear.
While she does have a point, the solution to encouraging girls to play sport, and indeed weaning boys off their monotonous diet of football, is more complicated than mere outfits.
Holmes puts forward the radical suggestion that instead of the time-honoured garb of:
* Airtex shirt. This is a white collared short-sleeved shirt with holes in it, so your bra (or lack thereof) is visible. At my school we were directed to embroider our names on them, just above the left nipple, so the gym teachers knew who they were yelling at,
* Gym knickers. These are sturdy, big pants usually made from sweatshirt type material,
* Mini skirt. Usually pleated and, when sported by the gym mistress, the source of many a young boy’s sexual awakening. This skirt barely covers the gym knickers and serves no real purpose other than to flap about and encourage speculation about what is being worn beneath;
girls should be permitted to wear tracksuits. The traditional gym kit of British secondary school girls has not changed one iota since gymslips fell out of favour after WW2. A modern school hockey pitch in mid-game does not look all that different from an illustration in a school stories annual from 1953. Bear in mind, also, that this garb was (and still is) worn in all weathers and offers precious little protection from the cold. I remember being quite interested in the fact that, when very cold, my legs developed orange splotches. These and the numbness took several hours to wear off. My school, being located close to the Yorkshire Dales, was magnanimous enough to allow tracksuit bottoms to be worn under the skirt and a regulation jumper to be worn on top, assuming you were organised enough to bring some with you – whether PE was to be inside or outside was not notified to us in advance.
You may of course argue that moving about keeps you warm. Well, yes, but that assumes the PE teacher has organised an activity where everyone is constantly moving. My PE teacher used to organise hockey matches in the snow. There is a great deal of hanging around in hockey and usually the only rapid movements are to run away from flying hockey balls or irate bulldyke team captains who have come to yell at you for hiding.
Since the British schoolgirl’s gym kit was invented, the textile industry has come a long way since Artex was pioneered. More effective wicking fabrics have been invented that keep a sports player cool and dry when needed, without being see-through or scanty. It seems bizarre that we continue to dress children in this archaic manner.
Holmes also attacked the current state of British school changing rooms. These places have a signature smell, usually emanating from both the boys’ changing room and the fulminating pile of muddy hockey boots and damp hockey socks in the corridor. One of my PE teachers was, for a while, obsessed with our all having a shower after gym. This was mad for several reasons: firstly, I went to a nice ex-grammar school full of middle-class children who washed regularly; secondly, the shower was lukewarm, apathetic and had two jets, one for the feet and one for the midriff; thirdly, it was COMMUNAL with no soap; and fourthly, roughly 70% of the class had not actually produced enough sweat to shower off in the first place. Certainly it is still a source of personal pride that I survived seven years at school without once breaking into a sweat. The teacher once marched into the changing room and demanded that I show her my damp towel, thus proving that I’d had a shower. Fortunately we were all wise to this ruse, and had been dampening our towels in the shower spray for just such an occasion.
It hardly need be said that the unsupervised changing room is an ideal location for bullying – eagle-eyed popular girls can tease the unpopular over even their choice of underwear. This provides another source of stress and worry – do you have the “correct” brand of deodorant? What is she going to notice this time? Of course it is easy to say in hindsight that a bullying victim could come to school in head-to-toe Prada, scented with Givenchy’s Amarige, and still be teased regardless (probably even more so). However, lessons like these are hard-won, and it isn’t always the case. A classmate of mine had to wear orthopaedic shoes to school and her life was made a misery as a result. When her podiatrist allowed her to wear expensive Nike trainers (and the school permitted this), she became popular overnight.
Providing decent shower cubicles – not even the most vigorous and bracing gym mistress is going to persuade recalcitrant teenage girls to use a communal shower – is a good idea but it’s hard to see how that’s going to encourage girls to do PE in the first place. A clean changing room might be nice, but given the state of most teenage girls’ bedrooms (and indeed socks), they probably don’t find it as offputting as Holmes imagines.
Modern philosophers of education may opine that competitive sports are outdated. Holmes suggests that PE should be more aware of modern exercise trends, such as self-defence or “legs, bums and tums” sessions. It’s true that if a pupil is particularly bad at competitive sports, it becomes quite difficult to persuade them to join in. Group exercise may help build their confidence.
Such sessions may also help with differentiation, which is just as important in a PE lesson as it is in Maths, and things have been improving.
It’s also the case that the obsession boys (and girls, to a lesser extent) have with football to the exclusion of everything else can be damaging. Rather like Harry Potter books and reading, it seems football in the playground at breaktime is tolerated on the grounds that the boys are at least doing some exercise. Playing football, like reading Harry Potter books, is no bad thing in itself, although it may be worthwhile encouraging boys to try other books, and other games. However, football in the playground means that the space is monopolised by careening boys and flying balls so that other children are unwilling to use it. A common sight in schools that have only one playground is a thriving football match going on in the centre, with non-playing boys and most of the girls sitting around the sides, chatting and eating.
Some schools have experimented with banning balls at breaktime and instead have tried to encourage more traditional playground games like skipping or Tig, with some success. Whilst this is often pilloried as the work of a Health and Safety obsessed society,http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2000/12/08/nplay08.xml, the intention is to reclaim the playground for all children, not just those able to kick a ball around. Not only that, but some boys may find they excel at other sports, like cricket or basketball, and the hegemony of football means they rarely get a chance to practice.
Games like Tig are individually competitive, burn calories and yet do not particularly rely upon any athletic skill. A slow child learns to dodge while an agile child can outrun. Breaktimes spent running about lead to healthier children who are better able to focus during lessons – apart from anything else, they have not spent the last 15 minutes eating sweets, crisps and vividly coloured fizzy drinks.
However, there is always a place for those talented in competitive sport to flourish and compete. Inter-school sports allows those children a chance to flourish and give the school some good PR. However, the most able children and the keenest PE teachers should not then dominate the PE curriculum, as they so frequently do. Bear in mind that it is these children who then grow up to be PE teachers, and can react with incomprehension when faced with pupils who are either incapable or unwilling to do their best for the good of the team. There are many reasons for this, ranging from shyness, dyspraxia, and bullying: who’d want to benefit a team who are unpleasant to you in school?
Perhaps making competitive sports optional would spare such pupils the psychological damage. Lessons focusing on key skills in football, say, would allow a switched on PE teacher to notice ability that might otherwise be hidden in notes from parents and lessons spent shivering in the goalmouth. Those pupils could then be gently encouraged to join one of the school teams. Allowing individual competition in athletics and swimming would also be beneficial.
The most important factor is encouraging pupils, at a young age, to find an activity that they enjoy. Holmes is right to be concerned, but I think she is being distracted by changing rooms and gym kit. Modern private gyms have beautiful and luxurious changing rooms, with hot showers, fluffy towels and unguents laid on. You can wear whatever kit you like, and some of it is very stylish. However, most gyms have a drop out rate of close to 75%. It isn’t the changing rooms or the kit that are the problem. I am sure that the gym Holmes attends is similarly well-appointed, but she has no real trouble in motivating herself to attend.
The most important lesson of all, which Holmes probably learned at a very young age, is how to enjoy exercise. This isn’t an easy skill to acquire, as, thanks to millennia of evolution, our brains do not want us to overstretch ourselves in order to conserve energy. It can take between 10 and 12 sessions of a particular activity before you can truly say whether you like it or not. School is therefore an ideal time to do this, because one can be compelled to participate.