Naomi Alderman on encouraging physical exercise in schools and locking up children

At the end of the Olympic games last month, Gordon Brown declared that it was time to “encourage competitive sports” in schools, to end the “medals for all” culture that prevailed in the 70s and 80s. He said that he wanted to see pupils recapture the “all or nothing” attitude in relation to sporting achievement. Barely two weeks later, a study was released demonstrating what any obese child could have told him: competitive sports put pupils off exercise. The study, conducted by Loughborough University, showed that a heavy emphasis on competitive sport in Britain’s schools is preventing pupils from developing healthy exercise habits, and doing little or nothing to improve teenage obesity.

As someone who went to school in the 70s and 80s, I can’t say that I noticed much of a “medals for all” culture myself. Physical education was taught in much the same way it’s always been taught: team games, captains picking their sides, and the inevitable segregation between those who are good at games and are picked first and those rejects left shuffling uncomfortably while the captains try to decide between the fat child, the child in glasses or the child puffing on an inhaler. In other words, physical education was taught in a way guaranteed to give at least some of the children lasting exercise-phobia. Competitive sports may be where exercise becomes “fun” for children who are good at it, but for those who are less talented, it is where exercise becomes not only physically demanding but also emotionally painful and socially humiliating.

To get some sense of the damage this can cause, imagine if we taught maths using the same method. Every lesson would start with two maths captains picking their teams – inevitably leaving those known to be bad at maths to the end. The rest of the lesson would be taken up with public competition in mental arithmetic. Get a sum wrong, and not only would you show yourself up in front of your classmates, but you’d let your team down, too. And as for slow and steady progress, improving your skills and working on your weak spots? Forget it, there’s no time for that. There’s a reason we don’t teach maths like this; it’s because we think maths is too important for us to risk leaving some children behind by creating an association in their minds between maths and public embarrassment.

Of course, children who enjoy competitive sports should have the chance to play them, learn new skills and improve their performance. They should be encouraged to take that interest as far as they can. This country has a rich heritage and tradition in sport; both as participants and as whole-hearted supporters. We can all be tremendously proud of our Olympic athletes, of their determination and abilities. But competitive sport is really just one tiny offshoot of PE. Children who enjoy maths should be encouraged to pursue that interest as far as they can, too – to a professional level, if they want. But most of us don’t need the skills of professional mathematicians. What we need are basic mathematical life-skills: the ability to plan a journey to get somewhere at the correct time, to make a budget, to work out that paying £20 a month over a year for a £120 TV isn’t a good bargain.

In the same way, what many children – particularly those who are less good at sport – need from PE is a grounding in the basics. They need an introduction to the concept of competing against yourself, trying to improve your own performance without reference to anyone else. And they need to be taught how to make exercise a part of their lives. The Loughborough study suggests that schools should offer aerobics or hill-walking as an alternative to competitive sport. It also emphasises that schools should be trying to inculcate the exercise habit in children. You can’t encourage exercise to be a lifelong habit by forcing children to do physical activity they don’t enjoy.

Unless the government changes its mind about the push toward competitive sport, I’m afraid Brown may get his wish. Children will indeed develop an “all or nothing” attitude towards exercise, with many deciding that, as they can’t be winners, they might as well do nothing at all.

· After doing so well in the Olympics, Britain topped another league table of western Europe. We lock up more children aged between 10 and 14 than any other European country apart from Russia and Ukraine, according to a report by Barnardo’s. Placing one young person in a secure children’s home costs £185,780 a year. As Barnardo’s points out, for the amount we spend on them in just one year, we could send each of these children to Eton for six years.

It’s not even as if we’re locking up these young children for serious crimes. The number of children convicted of violent or grave crimes has fallen in the past five years, and only 7% of locked-up 10- to 14-year-olds have been convicted of very serious crimes. The risk factors for youth crime are precisely the same as risk factors for other kinds of problem, including mental health issues and suicide: poverty, poor housing, early bereavement, poor parenting, exclusion from education and low intelligence and cognitive impairment, among others. We are taking the most disadvantaged children in our society and, instead of trying to improve their lives, locking them away.

According to the website Youth Work Now, Jack Straw responded to the Barnardo’s report by saying: “What drives me nuts is that there is not a single mention in this document about victims.”

On the contrary, there’s not a word of the report which isn’t about victims.

· This week Naomi attended the Small Wonder short story festival at Charleston House in Sussex: “Such a beautiful venue, such a perfectly sized event. The Bloomsbury group would approve.” She listened to the New Yorker short story podcast: “A perfect – and free – way to enjoy short stories; they’re impeccably read and discussed intelligently.”

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