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.
“Resourcing schools to implement the PE curriculum fully would be a good place for politicians to start to address the problem.”
Occupational therapist Brenda Cassidy is the founder of My Home PE, an online interactive “PE homework” tool for children aged between four and nine which is aimed at boosting physical activity outside school hours. My Home PE provides physical activities for kids and parents to take part in, from jogging on the spot during TV ad breaks, to going for a cycle or dancing to videos that are free to download.
Children earn points for every activity completed, and points are collected and stored in a whole-school database. Pilots have already been run in four schools.
More responsibility for parents?
Cassidy accepts that there are deficiencies in how schools are allocating time to PE, but argues that parents should be empowered to take more responsibility for the physical fitness of their children.
“The biggest problem is that only one hour a week is allocated to PE in primary schools,” she says.
“We need teachers to give PE homework, kids to do it, and parents to sign off on it. We parents have brought these children into the world and we, not the primary schools, are ultimately responsible for our own child’s health.
“Parents must enforce an Unplug and Play policy in the home in order for the child to get at least one hour of physical activity a day. We need to instil exercise in the youngest kids as habit.”
Many adults who left school before 2003 remember PE as that class where they were picked last for a team they never wanted to be on anyway and then forced to kick – or to run away from – a ball, while being shouted at, in the rain.
Today, however, the primary and secondary programmes are much more broad and varied, including athletics, outdoor and adventure activities, dance, gymnastics, games and aquatics.
Cassidy thinks that, although progress has been made, we may have got some of the fundamentals wrong.
“I hated PE and sport in school. It should be fun and not focused on exercise.
“There is no point making a child play soccer or any other sport if they never learned to skip, hop, jump, and catch: the basic co-ordination skills that they should develop between the ages of four and six.”
Ireland remains one of the few countries that has no formal assessment of PE at either primary or secondary level.
A Leaving Cert PE curriculum was devised in 2004, but it has sat on the shelf due to a combination of political disinterest and differences about how it should be assessed.
Teacher unions say they fully support PE as an examined subject, but that it should be marked by external examiners rather than by teachers themselves.
Under the new Junior Cycle, PE is being dropped as a standalone subject. Instead, it will form an optional 100-hour short course. Teachers fear that the subject is being downgraded.
Lyons says that every student, from first to sixth year, should have a double period of PE as well as the option of taking a short course at Junior Cycle level. “It might sound like a lot, but compared to other countries, it is not a lot at all: even with this, we will be barely close to matching them.”
Flying the flag for active schools
The Active School Flag is awarded to primary and secondary schools that try to achieve a physically active school community, including parents, students and teachers.
But what does it involve and what is it trying to achieve?
"The programme has gained momentum over the past year or two," says Karen Cotter, the national co-ordinator of the Active School Flag programme.
"We are finding schools that have good quality PE programmes and are prioritising PE, and the programme is demonstrating the clear benefits to schools of working in partnership with parents, the community, national agencies and students."
Sample improvements are included on the Active School website.
“There’s a wealth of really good ideas there including, for example, busy breaks where exercise takes place between lessons or at the start of the school day,” says Cotter.
Darragh Roe is principal of Ard Rí National School in Navan, Co Meath.
"It has taken quite a bit of work for us to get the flag," he says. "The aim is to integrate as much physical activity as possible into the school day.
“In our school, we’ve had five-minute dance lessons for the kids before they returned from their break, organised a cycling events and promoted cycling to school, and had a ‘walking school bus’ where children are escorted to school on foot.
"Movement has been integrated into the class curriculum. We've organised walking tours of the Hill of Tara for history classes and we've also included as much movement as we can in the classroom.
“We’ve involved parents as well and encouraged them to look at their own fitness by organising a tag rugby league.”
More than 430 schools, including 398 (12 per cent of total) primary schools and 32 (5 per cent of total) secondary schools have been awarded the flag to date.