Ian O’Riordan: Physical education central to developing academic excellence

Students who play sport through exam years end up with better grades, ESRI survey shows

Mark Twain always said he never let his schooling get in the way of his education. Victor Hugo always said he who opens a school door closes a prison.

So where exactly does that leave Ruairí Quinn?

Rarely has any Minister for Education received a more savage beating at the annual round of teacher conferences as Quinn did this week.

Even if he managed to roll with the punches, it’s hard to imagine a more vicious reception from those teachers if he’d threatened to close all schools and turn them into prisons. Although it could be argued that in certain cases they already are.

Indeed what seems to worry some people I know in the teaching business – more than any of Quinn’s planned reforms for the education system – is that reception.

If there is such fear and loathing towards change, at primary and secondary level – even in addressing something as basic as gender imbalance among primary teachers – then it could be a long time before any education policy, archaic or otherwise, is reformed.

And that, more worrying than anything else, includes physical education (PE).

There’s little doubt that many of Quinn’s proposals on education and teacher training require further negotiation. Although no one has been jeering or booing – or indeed heckling through a megaphone – about the proposal to make PE a core examinable subject in the Leaving Certificate.

At least here there is simply no counter-argument.

Prof Niall Moyna at DCU has been campaigning on this subject for a while now. Earlier this year he helped carry out a survey which suggested that 80 per cent of Irish secondary school teachers believe PE should be put on the Leaving Certificate.

That would help give proper recognition to sport and physical fitness within the school curriculum, or at least the same recognition that art and music and even home economics already gets.

Minister for Sport Leo Varadkar has also given his backing to the proposal, as long as PE included a mix of physical challenges and the study of physiology and sports science. Again there is no counter-argument to that.

There is already agreement to get PE on to the new Junior Certificate, although it’s around the Leaving Cert that the subject – or rather the lack of it – becomes the bigger issue.

Further evidence of that came with the recent publication of a more extensive survey from the ESRI, Keeping Them in the Game: Taking Up and Dropping Out of Sport and Exercise in Ireland .

Evidence-backed argument
It suggested that students who play sport right through their exam years, including the Leaving Cert, end up with better grades. However the survey also suggested that students who drop out of sport in fifth or sixth year are less likely to resume it.

Both State examinations were also shown to have a “clear effect” on sporting participation, with numbers falling off towards third year, rising for those who do transition year and falling again during fifth and especially sixth year. This pattern was even more pronounced among girls.

The hope therefore is that the hysterical objection from some of the teachers at those conferences in Kilkenny and Wexford this week doesn’t completely dampen the mood for other changes within the educational system.

I wouldn’t be in this business if the US college I attended didn’t give at least some recognition to my sporting ability, which as limited as that turned out to be, still far exceeded any talent with the slide ruler.

In the US, athletic ability has always been accorded proper recognition in terms of overall academic status, which helps explain why the Penn Relays is now the largest and longest-running annual track and field meeting in the world.

Sporting and academic ability
It started in 1893 as a way of encouraging athletic participation at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the founders of the Ivy League, and this weekend's 120th edition in Philadelphia will feature 22,000 athletes from schools and colleges across the US, along with a select number of elite, international teams (including an Irish distance medley team of Brian Gregan, Paul Robinson, John Travers, and John Coghlan).

In the past lots of famous athletes went to Penn Relays, happy to take their place among the school and college races. In April 1936 Jesse Owens, representing Ohio state, won the men's college 100m dash, three months before making history at the Berlin Olympics.

In 1951, Roger Bannister, representing the University of Oxford, set a Penn Relays record in the men's mile, running 4:08.3.

Three years after that, Bannister changed history too, when he improved his best to 3:59.4 at the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, becoming the first man to run the mile in under four minutes: that will actually be 60 years ago next Tuesday week, May 6th, so watch out for the run of nostalgia.

Meanwhile, it’s worth recalling that Bannister always gave his sporting and academic ability equal status. In 1954 he was carefully juggling the demands of his training with his medical studies at Oxford and actually did a round at St Mary’s hospital in London on the very morning of his historic run.

A mere six weeks following his 3:59.4, Bannister actually completed his medical degree, but never once letting education get in the way of his sporting greatness.