The political debate around the legacy of the Olympic Games over the last few days has revolved around whether every kid in every British school should have to do two hours of compulsory sport every week. Cameron thinks not, while Boris Johnson and Kelly Holmes think they should.

But as far as I am concerned this question really misses the point.

What are we actually trying to achieve through school sport? Do we even know?

Is it to keep kids fit, and reduce obesity? Is it to give kids a taste of sports that they may then subsequently excel at? Is it to give kids the first taste of elite competition, which may eventually lead to olympic medal victories?

As far as I am concerned it can only ever be the first of these, and a little bit of the second. It cannot ever be the latter. But I would like to see some evidence about all of this, because at the moment we’re high on hyperbole and low on analysis.

In my school I was ‘lucky’ – I had at least three hours of sport a week. Rugby, football, cricket and some running and swimming. Yet the only two of these I was ever any good at – swimming and long distance running – were thanks to lessons outside school and nothing whatsoever to do with what the school could do. The kids who were useless at swimming at 11 were still useless at 16. I was reasonably good at 11 and was still reasonably good at 16, and all of that was due to my parents taking me to lessons in the evenings as a small kid and swimming racing and lifesaving training in later years.

It turns out that the sport I can really do – inline skate marathons – was something I first tried at the age of 28 – who knows what might have happened if I had discovered this at the age of 14 instead? Or canoe slalom, or dressage? But the only way this could ever be possible would be through the provision of facilities and clubs for whole towns and cities. We cannot expect schools to achieve that sort of provision.

Likewise the “too many British medallists are from private schools” critique by Owen Jones and others riles me. Unequal sports achievement is a result of our unequal society where not enough parents can afford to take their kids to swimming lessons or taekwondo classes. In that context it’s no surprise that places like Millfield excel, and 2 hours of sport (or not) in all our schools is not going to make much difference when it comes to elite sports.

We need solid and concrete steps towards the achievement of a more equal society, and more equal sporting success will flow from that. Everything else is secondary.


  1. Gitane

    As teachers observe and promote say a good maths student towards physics or engineering’ so the same observation of physical prowess or skill could signpost a student to rockclimbing, waterpolo or cricket club. The only problem is that PE teachers are now mostly queing up at job centres or working as personal gym assistants and that current assessments of physical skills are left ignored by most untrained PE supervisors. So I would argue that the compulsory 2/3 hrs PE is only worth considering if run by trained PE instructors, otherwise its just “games”.

  2. John Durrant

    Regarding the link between exercise and learning, there is research / evidence via John Ratey which supports it – see

    I think the theory from an evolutionary perspective goes that exercise tricks your brain into thinking you might be entering a new alien environment where you will be required to learn something new.

    With regards to the word ‘Compulsory’ in relation to schools sports, I think what is needed is opportunities and incentives to get involved, not necessarily compulsion…

    Also, as a legacy, why can’t the Olympics venues be used to stage a regular ‘inter schools sports day’ – something to really inspire the kids to train for?

  3. Julian Weller

    I see the main aim of sport for people who are non-athletes slightly different. Physical activity can make us happier/less unhappier/ keep us emotionally healthier. Not every form of physical activity works for everybody, so man invented different sports. If life for you is not sports then sport should mainly be about enjoying an activity to make you ideally feel better about yourself. Health benefits and whatnot are just welcomed side effects. Problem is, in order to enjoy ‘sport’ you need to try/train your body. Hence, it is only fair that school offers opportunities for physical activity.

  4. Jason Knoll

    Great article. Here in the US (at least in my state, Wisconsin), most teens (our 7th grade through 11th grade) have a physical education class every day of the week (40-50 minutes per day). I’ve never thought about the purpose of it until I read your article. Now I can rile the feathers of my phy ed colleagues.

  5. What of the evidence suggesting that physical activity during the school day improves concentration/attention and improves behaviour in the classroom?

    Commentators seem to be focusing on the purely physical health benefits of increased PE and ignoring the very real mental/behavioural benefits it can provide.

  6. Interesting point – hadn’t thought of that one. You may be right, and indeed it would be another factor in favour of maintaining it. But would it also not be better to spread the sport over the week, rather than in one block?

    Anyway, many thanks for the comment – this is just the sort of additional contribution I hoped my blog entry would provoke! 🙂

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