Physical education – and the question of compulsion


A few weeks ago a friend asked me if I thought Physical Education should be compulsory; he was running a discussion session with his students, some of whom are on a path to become Phys Ed teachers, and was gathering views. I started to answer ‘of course’; it seemed obvious, I work in a school of sport and exercise where sports education is one of our larger programmes and along with sports coaching accounts for about ¼ of our new students a year. The idea that Phys Ed is a good thing is pretty much in the water – but the more I thought the more I wondered if it was in the Kool Aid. This was also about the same time as the UK’s Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove was issuing guidance that teachers should or could use exercise as a form of punishment (my co-worker Tom Curran has written about that dangerous idea here).

The thing that really stopped me answering though (consider this a public rather belated answer) was that I had hated Phys Ed at school. I was never a particularly sporty type in a predominantly working class state school where sports ability was highly valued, although I could hold my own in strength-based sports, and being big and tall helped in the rugby scrum; being a (bit of a) dork didn’t help much. My experience of Phys Ed – and I admit this was nearly 4 decades ago in a country far far away both geographically and temporally – was one of games, mainly team games, and discomfort. It wasn’t that I was short on movement competence; put me in a pool, a sailing dinghy, the sea or even on a netball court (if I didn’t have to shoot at goal) and I could perform quite well, but when it came to rugby, cricket, hockey, soccer (as we called out our way), basketball, gymnastics or any kind of track and field athletics that involved running or jumping I was rubbish, while as a gawky not-one-of-the-cool-kids adolescent boy the compulsory dance classes terrified me, disco era or otherwise. It also didn’t help that I was a bit scared of our Phys Ed teacher, who was very much in the British model of the ‘Games Master’ – he quite properly seemed to assume that most of us were slacking off when we should have been running, kicking, lifting, throwing, jumping, flick-flacking or whatever the activity of the day required.

The cold sweats that accompanied these recollections then took me to a ‘Hell No!’ answer – there is no way Phys Ed should be compulsory, especially if it in any way resembles the things we did in my high school days. But, of course, the debate has moved on; models of Phys Ed have developed new forms – our programme is most definitely not a Phys Ed programme but sports education. Approaches such as Teaching Games For Understanding (TGFU) have been developed – although I have to confess to being left wondering ‘understanding what’; every time an advocate has tried to explain the ‘what’ to me I have been left with a bunch of questions. We’ve made changes to introduce exercise and fitness activities into the curriculum, only to find both new approaches and new activities come under attack from those critics who lament the decline of competitive sport, with the emphasis on competitive. These advocates of competition seem to see Phys Ed as little more than values education for success in the corporate world, or so it seems listening to some of these debates (I accept it is more subtle than that for many).

After my post-traumatic smelling salts I turned, academic that I am, to the question – what do we mean by Phys Ed? If in doubt, ask a new question – that’s the scholarly way; problematize the problem. Our British approaches to Phys Ed, the kind I endured during the last millennium, were all about training the body to run the empire or labour in the factory (no need for girls and young women to do Phys Ed, or Physical Training as it was usually called); this isn’t the winning battles on the playing fields of Eton myth but the ideals of athleticism that have been a significant force in British education – probably not as dominant in practice as we might think, but still a force with considerable ideological power. Despite all the new(ish) ideas of movement literacy, physical literacy and so forth, it is hard not to get past the notion that Phys Ed, at least in the UK, remains framed by people whose experience was like mine, games-based, which may be why Michael Gove can suggest exercise could be used as a form of punishment – and we wonder why participation rates fall off during adolescence, especially for girls and young women. If this is how Phys Ed is still experienced in schools then my answer to my friend’s question is an even more forceful Hell No!

If Phys Ed sets out to do something different, if it is shaped by a desire to address central issues in public health, if we can get beyond the cheap rhetoric of the obesity epidemic (they’re good headlines that do little to address the central issues at stake) and consider Phys Ed as laying the ground work for a life-long love of movement and taking pleasure in the experience of physical activity then we might just begin to get somewhere else. If the Phys Ed we’re talking about is designed to address the long term issues of physical activity as a way to deal with the health impacts of ageing (including children living longer with life threatening conditions), to mitigate the lifestyle impacts of long or disrupted working days in multiple jobs, of the psychological consequences of growing demands that we self-manage while at the same time community support systems and networks are collapsing around us then I might answer the compulsion question differently. If this Phys Ed is part of a physical activity based public health system that recognises the social dynamics of physical activity and health – especially mental health, that while making people responsible for their own health (a growing discursive trope in much of Europe) does not penalise them if they are unable to constrain the daily demands that prevent action for well-being then it is even more likely that I’ll answer the compulsion question differently. If this Phys Ed is integrated into a single coherent system that supports and encourages physical activity as part of a collective programme to build social well-being including shorter working hours, more accessible and safe public space, improved public transport and measures to enhance physical activity which might include everything from cycle tracks to taking escalators out of shopping centres and subway stations then I’m even more sympathetic to the compulsion argument.

But even with all that I’m going to answer the ‘should Phys Ed be compulsory’ question with a No. I suspect that compulsion gets in the way of the one thing that is likely to make Phys Ed a meaningful part of a public health agenda, pleasure in movement. Compulsion is a really good way to prevent us liking or enjoying what we’re doing. It seems to me that one of the major problems we have in understanding experiences of Phys Ed is that many, if not most, researchers start implicitly from their experiences of enjoyment, which for many in sport and related academic areas is not like mine, one of hatred, and did not have the effects of mine to lead to a general dislike of sport. There seems to be an assumption that sport and Phys Ed are good things, and that a fall-off in participation rates for adolescents and low participation rates for adults are the result of a deficiency (or perhaps delinquency) in those young people and adults not some fundamental problem with sport or Phys Ed. It seems that many researchers fail to recognise the dynamics and forms of their own pleasure in movement or take for granted that others find the same pleasure.

There is a growing research base that might answer this problem of corporeal-pleasure-in-movement, but I am sceptical of the dominance of psychometrics in the literature I have seen. There is some extremely good non-psychometric work exploring these affective and emotional aspects – in the UK for instance, there is work by Jacqui Allen-Collinson, John Hockey and Jessica Francombe-Webb each of whom explores aspects of this problem in ways that get to these emotional and affective responses and in some cases even pleasure. Part of the problem with bodily pleasure is that so much of it is preter-conscious, not only is it something we have trouble describing but it is something we have trouble even identifying. A bigger part of the problem is that those who like sport and Phys Ed seem to write and explore in a way that fails to recognise the affectivity and emotions of those who dislike it while those who dislike it neither write about nor explore sport and Phys Ed. The fears of Phys Ed, the hope that it might be avoided, the yearning that just this time it won’t be a hour of hell (even purgatory would have offered some hope of escape), the agonies of donning gym kit and all those other things that undermine the pleasures of movement are likely to be made worse by its compulsion. If I had my way, every Phys Ed student would be required to read, digest, make sense of and translate into pedagogic and androgogic philosophy Julie Myreson’s superb anti-sport memoir Not a Games Person, which continues to speak loudly to those of us who, also, were not games people.

So, to answer my friend’s question, even if we could slough off the terror inducing dominance of competitive games in Phys Ed – although this is weaker than in my youth, it remains significant – in favour of a physical activity promoting public health driven approach to Phys Ed, compulsion seems likely to undermine pleasure-in-movement. We could start by doing more to train our teachers in a way that challenges their takens-for-granted of Phys Ed and sport as a good (tricky, for many it is their hobby) into a style that builds empathetic understanding of those of us who do not find pleasure in Phys Ed so that they may recognise that for many of us ‘shirking’ is not something to discipline us for (as my Phys Ed teacher did) but suggests a more profound problem in the thing we call Phys Ed: Myreson’s memoir is a good place to start. Even with that, my answer to the ‘should Phys Ed be compulsory’ question remains an emphatic No, but schools should all be funded as if it were.

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Malcolm MacLean is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. He is currently serving as Academic Director of the Doctoral College at University of Wales Trinity St David, and has academic appointments in Australia, South Africa, and Gibraltar. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements, and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and former Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport, and is currently Special Issue Editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.


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