PE in schools: Are we all doing enough?
Ireland gives less time to PE than most European countries and childhood obesity is a major problem. Should schools do more, or do parents need to get their kids exercising?
Brenda Cassidy, founder of My Home PE, an online interactive homework tool for children aged 4-9 aimed at boosting physical activity outside school hours. Photograph: Alan Betson
The way children exercise has changed enormously. Safety fears and apartment living have given them less space to play, while increased access to technology has made them far more sedentary.
Evidence shows that about a quarter of Irish children are overweight or obese. Four out of five are not getting enough exercise.
Fergal Lyons, a PE teacher and president of the Physical Education Association of Ireland, says Irish schools are not providing enough PE. “Children used to be able to get their exercise from running around, playing games and climbing trees. That’s no longer the reality, but the Irish education system is so academically driven that it’s been too slow to respond to these changes.”
Last year, a study from the EU’s Eurydice Network said that Ireland’s provision of PE was third from the bottom of 36 European countries surveyed. Although the quality of PE teaching was praised, the report criticised Ireland’s provision of curriculum time to PE as “consistently low”.
At primary level, Irish schoolchildren have an average of 37 hours of PE a year, compared with 108 in France.
In secondary school, less than 5 per cent of the school year is given over to PE, with about 45 hours allocated to PE, compared with 76 in the UK and 90 in Portugal.
In many post-primary schools, third-, fifth- and sixth-year students are getting no PE at all, with schools allocating the time to study or extra maths. Provision is patchy and depends on the willingness of boards of management and principals to promote the subject.
Lyons says that, although a handful of schools are without access to proper facilities, the main problem is that PE is not being adequately timetabled. The Department of Education employs two full-time PE inspectors for secondary schools. Since 2006, 158 schools have been inspected.
Teachers and PE programmes have been praised, but inspectors have repeatedly raised concerns about the amount of time given over to PE. Inspectors are free to make recommendations; school principals are free to ignore them, and they often do.
Schools to blame?Earlier this year, Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone called for ice-cream vans to be curtailed and for schools to provide half an hour of PE daily.
But is it fair to blame school management for the crisis in PE?
Sheila Nunan, the general secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, says the majority of primary schools are providing more than an hour of PE a week, but points to a lack of suitable facilities in more than half of schools, which means PE is often cancelled due to rain.
“The fact that so many schools lack indoor facilities makes a nonsense of calls for schools to provide daily PE lessons,” she says.