Why It’s Time To Bring Back Old School Physical Training

US Navy take school fitness class

US Navy take school fitness class

What follows are some thoughts the editor of MotleyHealth had while considering the current obesity problems that are being faced in the UK. The ideas are his own only and follow his personal experiences at a British secondary school from 1985 to 1990. This article was originally written in May 2012 but then abandoned. The London 2012 Olympic Games prompted a review of the draft.

Why are young adults more obese today than they were 25 years ago? While studying Challenging Obesity module with the Open University last year I was introduced to the concept of the Obesogenic Environment. This was covered in our article on The Global Obesity Crisis. The idea is that there is no single factor that leads to obesity, instead it is caused by many small changes in society, the economy, education, the environment and health care. To break free from the clutches of obesity is a big challenge for many people. The concept is not totally new though as Desmond Morris coined the term “the Human Zoo” to describe the urban environment and its negative effect on the health and well-being of city dwellers.

A Physical Education Problem


But what does this all have to do with Physical Education (as in the lessons in fitness and exercise that are taught to children in school PE lessons)? Well, I think that changes to the way exercise and fitness is taught in school is key to why so many young adults find themselves unfit and overweight very soon after leaving the school system (and many before).

When I was at school in the 1980’s we used to do exercise in physical education classes, although by the time I moved from primary school to secondary school the system was in decay. At secondary school (started in 1985) it was known as “Games” and not School PE or PT. For a while this meant that every week we would try something different, or run around the local countryside (cross country). OK, we did have rugby “lessons” and some football (soccer) “lessons”, but teaching was never a focal point of these classes. They were an opportunity for those already good at sports to show off and beat the weaker and slower kids (usually me!). In all my years at school I never remember a games’ teacher coaching me on any aspect of sport. The teaching method was along the lines of “there’s the field, here’s the ball, now play rugby”.

To emphasise this point further, at some point in my last 2 years in secondary education (GCSE’s here in the UK, exams in America would be those done at the end of Senior High School) I had 2 hockey lessons, 2 basketball lessons, a few cricket classes, played some tennis, a little field and track athletics, played some football, a little Rubgy, did a fair amount of cross country and probably did some exercises in the gymnasium if the weather was really bad.

The thing is, all this amounted to no skill development in any of the sports, and certainly no skills I could take away with me (apart from the running). In cricket, the games teacher once commented that my bowling was good, but there was never an opportunity to develop this. My hockey teacher seemed impressed with my skills with the stick, she even asked if I had played before, but again, that was the end of the hockey lessons and there was no further chances, or encouragement, to practice.

Another development in the final year (the 5th year then, year 10 now) was that we started Games Theory classes. This was really just basic biology, much was duplicated from the biology class (that I also took) which meant I did not learn anything at all. In these classes we were taught how a spinter’s muscles are different from those of a long distance runners’, but we were not taught how to develop those muscles in a gym.

What seems strange now, is that during my CGSEs, Games lessons were compulsory but they were not really graded at all. At the end of the year the PE teacher would write a school report and give a grade, but there was nothing objective that was recorded. PE was more like art than science.

Feedback from my PE Teacher

As we never had any form of examination when I was at school, the only feedback I ever received was as follows:

Spring 1989 Report:

“Jonathan has participated in the physical education course with average effort. He must ensure he applies himself fully to the task required.

Jonathan’s skill and ability is average for his group. A level of reinforcement of basic skills is required.”

What is funny here, is that I always felt that I was trying hard in those classes. The fact that I was not as athletic as the other kids seemed to get translated to “average effort”. Also, the recommendation was a reinforcement of basic skills – but this was never actually addressed. There was never an option to receive additional instruction to get that reinforcement. The school system failed me.

Spring 1990 Report:

“Jonathan participated satisfactorily during lessons”.

Another year of lessons, and that is all that is said. Not a lot can be learned from that.

Physical Education in the UK Today

The current state (2012) of physical education in the UK does not seem much better, if the GCSE revision notes on the BBC are anything to go by. Things have certainly changed as kids today get rated on their performance and theory tests, but it is still not optimal, in my opinion. Physical fitness can, and should be, objectively measured.

For example, here is a breakdown of the GCSE Physical Education curriculum:

  • Benefits of sport
    • Mental benefits
    • Physical benefits
    • Social benefits
  • Health related fitness factors
    • Cardiovascular fitness
    • Muscular strength
    • Muscular endurance
    • Flexibility
  • Skill related fitness factors
    • Agility
    • Balance
    • Co-ordination
    • etc. etc.

I have not included every part, but my point is, on the GCSE bitesize revision pages there is a lot of information about the theory of sport and exercise. Where is the information on how to exercise? There is a lot of excellent theory, they even study professional athletes and breakdown sprinting, football skills, swimming etc. But none of this teaches people how to really exercise. There are no indications that a child would be able to answer a question along the lines of “Plan a weekly fitness schedule for a middle distance runner” or “Plan an exercise routine and diet for a middle-aged overweight male”.

If you wanted to teach people to cook, so that when they leave school and home they are able to prepare healthy meals, you would not test them on human nutrition or discuss the rise of celebrity chefs, you would (at least, I would hope!) test them on their ability to plan a meal and cook it.

Time For a New School Physical Fitness Curriculum

It is my belief that one of the failings of the school education system (as experienced by myself) is that children are leaving school without knowing how to exercise. Some may leave school knowing that they are good at football, or bad at badminton, but this does not teach people how to actually exercise by themselves to stay fit and healthy.

It is all very well teaching children about the health aspects of fitness and regular exercise, but the average 15-year-old feel immune to the effects of time. Nobody at 15 or 16 can predict that they will be obese by the time they are 25!

Although Physical Education is compulsory at GCSE, it is not always examined. If a child wishes to gain a qualification they have to do an additional short course GCSE to make the two years of study worthwhile. This seems to me to be a waste – if a course is compulsory to learn, give people a proper exam and a qualification.

Physical Training Exams

So often people come to MotleyHealth and say that they have no idea how to exercise. Exercise is the most basic of human activities really and it is a real shame that so many people have no idea how to start.

A structured exercise plan, taught throughout school and assessed every year will at least teach every child how to perform a workout by themselves at home, and this is the first step to being a fitter and healthier person.

To improve the physical education of children I propose to remove all the biological theory of exercise to the compulsory science / biology classes. Physical training should then consist of a series of tests that focus on personal exercise. Sports Coaching and Officiating are good skills to be introduced to, but what is important is to ensure that kids know exactly how to exercise.

The best way to do this is to create a series of workouts that are examined in a similar way to a martial arts examination / grading. Students should be tested on their ability to exercise effectively by themselves, and also to teach others (teaching is a great way to improve your own knowledge). Tests should include bodyweight circuit training with 10 to 20 different exercises performed in a logical order, with a warm up and a stretch and cool down.

Through weekly repetition children will get fitter and also learn how to exercise by themselves. If the course is graded, even less physical children who aspire to attaining the best grades will work harder to improve their fitness and ability to perform a series of exercise routines effortlessly.

Children at 15 / 16 years should also be introduced to resistance training and bodybuilding, and have a test to show that they can safely use strength training equipment (both free weights and machines) and carry out training routines to target specific parts of the body. Circuit training would be relatively easy to assess. For example, and examination could let one child lead a group of 5-10 other children on a 15 minute workout. Assessments can be done over a period of several weeks so that all children can be assessed as close to individually as possible.

Obviously such a form of assessment is going to be far more complex than the current system that rates children on their level of effort and motivation in class throughout the course and then a possible theory test at the end. But something has to change.

This article is very much some initial thoughts on the topic. No doubt there are many very experienced and knowledgeable teachers and ministers constantly thrashing out new ideas to try to find the best way to teach children how to be fit and healthy. But at the moment, few changes are actually being implemented.

Feedback from School Kids Today

We asked “What do UK kids learn in PE now?” on a popular question / answer site to see what is being taught now. Some interesting replies:

First reply: “At my school, we only play sports and sort of get told about how it’s good for us as we learn it. For example, of we’re doing tennis, when we can rally atleast ten times, we get told how many calories we’ve burned, what muscles we use, what grade that gets us in PE”.

This sounds very much like how it was taught in the 1980’s. It really seems the reverse of how it should be. Rather than learning what makes a better tennis player, then exercising to improve those characteristics, children learn tennis then are told what muscles they are using.

 Second reply: “In my first 3 years we have done athletics for two terms every year switching over each section (pretty much every thing in the olympics but swimming and javelin) as we had 3 different groups varying on everybody’s capabilities. ….

We do fitness and circuits too e.g. We do the Cooper run (12 minute run) ….. we have the bleep test twice a year too which is much more fun and a lot harder and nobody can cheat as it gets harder and harder and people get knocked out/defeated by the bleep. “

This reply was from someone just moving into GCSE PE. This does seem more promising as it means that teachers are actually assessing the fitness levels of the students to monitor their progress – this never happened in my day (or at my school).

Another student replied to say that they never did anything apart from a little dodgeball now and then.

What Next For Physical Training?

So, what next? Who knows. Hopefully we will come up with a plan to revolutionize physical education in school. Here are a few thoughts:

  • Objective fitness tests at the start and end of each term – grade based on improved performance
  • Each student to chose 3 track and field events to practice and be tested on improved performance
  • Graded on the performance on a series of circuit training workouts – not a fitness test but a test of their ability to remember the correct order of the exercises and how to perform them properly.

There are many other ways to test improvements. What is important that each child is tested on their ability to recall a workout and their personal improvements. Competing against other students should be saved for sports days and inter-school competitions to ensure that all students maintain a high level of personal achievement and self-esteem. If you are not the top of the class in PE it is hard to stay motivated, and being called “average” by the PE teacher really does not help either!

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