Listen to those who didn’t get home

By Ronnie Heath, Managing Director

I read recently about the statisticians who had the unenviable task of trying to increase the percentage of Second World War bomber pilots getting home safely. They carefully studied the patterns of the bullet holes and damage to the planes to try and devise the best way to reinforce these areas to give them extra protection. Too much armour would slow the planes down but placing it in the right spots could greatly increase their chances of getting home, they believed. However, all of their experiments failed until a smart new recruit asked the question, “Shouldn’t we be studying the ones who didn’t get home?” They immediately increased success by putting armour over the engines, the very place where there was no damage to the planes that did get home! It got me thinking: Is this not exactly the same mistake we make with PE and Sport?

Major national organisations that have over decades received really large amounts of cash, running into billions, have made no significant impact on PE and Sport for those that need it most. Their leaders are passionate, well-meaning orators from our minority elite club ‘who did get home’, and are therefore under qualified and without the necessary empathy to make a change which would impact on those left behind. We create our own super echo chamber that both excludes the voices of the very people we claim to care about alongside, perversely, finding ways to blame others – primary school teachers, headteachers, coaches and even the children themselves – for our failures. We at Create accept the responsibility of having to change the way we train and support teachers, coaches and parents, many of whom are desperate to do better. Most of all though, we know that we have to listen to those ‘who didn’t get home’.

Why are so many still teaching PE and coaching Sport as if the world was flat? We repeat and model the same two dimensional approach that will never work for a world that is round. An holistic approach that is about them and their needs will support the development of well-rounded children.

Well-rounded children need a well-rounded approach

Professor Tanya Byron, Child Psychologist, reminds us that children today are more tolerant, more compassionate, more thoughtful and more open minded. Yet they are much less active, more anxious, more likely to struggle with mental health, more likely to self-harm and more likely to have eating disorders. “Our children are the first generation growing up in captivity,” she observes, when describing how the radius of play has decreased to the extent that many children rarely play away from their own homes. I suggest many are simply not equipped to cope with the stresses and challenges we face in the wild.

The lie we tell is that PE and Sport are best placed to deal with these problems. The real truth is that when done very well this is true but, when done badly, negative experiences can be truly traumatic. PE and Sport have the potential to exasperate, be part of the problem, or become great tools and environments which address these issues. Done poorly, PE and Sport create feelings of inadequacy, develop enduring negative attitudes and abilities, engender helplessness or cause ostracism. Done well, they promote self-esteem, resilience, critical thinking, connectivity and a sense of belonging. We have an extraordinary opportunity as educators to provide some of the very best solutions for mental health challenges. We can be the best and most important subject in schools if we embrace those core elements.

“Our memories of events both good and bad are entwined with our emotions and lie at the very heart of our identities and personalities, they make us who we are.”
The Human body: Secrets of your lives

But we still reach out for quick two dimensional fixes. Our approaches to PE and Sport are devised and led by those who emerged unscathed through the clouds. And so we carry on regardless of what we know is no longer true but is still supported and largely financed by caring, well-meaning people.

Therefore, for example, we champion daily running! Forgetting that our role is to educate our primary school children and create a positive relationship with physical activity for life, we send them on a run. Astonishingly, even with all the evidence we have against it, we still choose to make primary school children do what is effectively a 12 minute fitness test every day rather than encourage and equip them with the right attitudes, knowledge and skills to choose to be active later in life.

Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary at the time, told us “The 2012 Olympics will reinvigorate our sporting habits”. The Government gave £1 Billion to spend on grassroots sports which we spent on the wrong people…to make NO significant difference whatsoever.

We have to challenge this practice. As former President Barack Obama reminded us recently “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you are supporting the oppressor”.  What we permit we promote.

Some enlightened colleagues argue that the key is to emphasise the word ‘education’ in PE. I do agree with the principle but let’s be careful also to ensure those who coach Sport to children understand that they have a huge responsibility to educate too.

We are allowed therefore to pretend, often unchallenged, that the world is flat, assuming that our priority and our core outcomes are to teach sport specific skills to children. We still do stuff that we know is no longer true. Year after year, stuff that has never worked still goes on, prioritising winning next Saturday or the next tournament over developing every child to be better problem solvers, communicators, leaders and people.

As teacher trainers or coach educators we have a responsibility to translate, keep things simple, support teachers and coaches to understand ‘why’, establish priorities and, above all, create practical solutions that align our beliefs and values with what we say and what we do. Less is nearly always more when we search for the very simple things that make the biggest difference. Rather than complicate things, we need to help teachers and coaches make sense of their role and explore ways to better engage all children, personalise their experience and find simple practical ways to implement that philosophy.

Fundamental emotional skills, thinking skills and movement skills are essential

Our secondary schools’ PE departments have got better at explaining what they can achieve through PE but have seen their status and opportunity dwindle as many fail to reflect their claims in their practice. Doing things because they have always done them and in a way they have always done them won’t achieve their claims. As Sir John Jones, Education Leader suggests, “When all is said and done, a lot more is said than done”.

With primary schools, this is simply not a big jump. They really understand learning and whole child development better than anyone. Some inevitably get pulled off course a little by the pressure of Literacy and Maths results but the very best never lose sight of the very skills and behaviours that shape our children’s future.

There is no excuse anymore. The overwhelming evidence and guidance from all education research leads us to understand that the child’s important needs have to come first.

Our aim is to provide each and EVERY child with the Physical, Emotional and Thinking skills to flourish. Our role is to provide the rich conditions and learning nutrition for that to happen. What we do is far less important to the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Let’s demonstrate and model that ambition and pause a little longer to listen to their personal needs and celebrate together with each additional child who gets home.