Coates’ Olympic school push: do we need more sport in curriculum?

Australia’s Olympic Chief John Coates has started a debate about the role of sport in the school curriculum. School sport image from www.shutterstock.com

Australia’s recent medal performance at the Olympic Games has caused Australia’s Olympic Chief John Coates some concern. Last week, he blamed at least part of the result on a lack of sport in the school curricula, and called for government to look at making school sport compulsory.

The minister for school education, Peter Garrett has ruled out making competitive sport compulsory, saying he doesn’t think kids should be forced “out on to a sporting field if they’ve got other interests”.

The reaction to the lower-than-expected medal tally highlights just how much Australia’s sense of self-worth and imagined shared identity is innately and indispensably entwined with sport.

But what role does school physical education (PE) and sport play in this? Although Coates has pointed to some truths around young people’s engagement with sports, are there issues outside the school gates, not just within school curriculum, that we should be looking at?

A sporting identity

Scholars of sport and society have noted Australia’s cultural fixation with sport and the role sport plays in our common identity. Scholars of physical education have also noted that sport remains the substantive content of most school PE, especially secondary school PE.

But given the large changes we’ve seen in the Australian population, demographics, globalisation and rapidly advancing technology in the past 20 years, is sport as significant as it has been to previous generations to Australian’s cultural identity and experience of community?

While community-based sport is at the heart of Australian sporting culture, the progressive erosion of the regulated 40-hour working week and weekends entirely free of work obligations, and the rise of professional sport as lounge room entertainment mean that less of us now have the time or the inclination to play recreational sport at the local level.

If young peoples’ parents are engaging in sport in this way, what model do their children have?

School curriculum

There’s a lot students can learn from having sport in a formal school setting. Its significant role in Australian life and shaping the Australian identity, its strong relationship to a large body of knowledge from fields such as sport science, psychology, sports medicine, nutrition and bio-mechanics justifies its place in the school curriculum.

But school is just one way to interest students in sport and physical activity.

The way PE works within many schools with a typical multi-activity model means students rarely have time to become good at one sport via PE lessons. Many students will go through their physical education learning what they can’t do rather than what they can do.

The multi-activity nature of the PE curriculum contrasts to other subject areas where specific knowledge and capability progressively build from year-to-year.

A sporting chance

There needs then to be better engagement for young people with sport “beyond the school gates”.

Whether it’s through community sporting clubs or after school programs, having time with one dedicated sport outside of the curriculum structure is vital to long term development. Particularly influential in long-term recreational involvement is engagement with a range of similar games in the formative ages 5-12 years of age.

Also important is playing with purpose in school PE, deliberate play in backyard sport, and deliberate practice to improve skill when one makes the decision to specialise in a sport.

Generational change

When it comes down to it, Coates’ call to get sport back into school curricula was technically wrong – sport is already there. But he is raising a valuable debate about how young people and Australian society at large now engages with competitive sport.

From a broader sociological perspective, he has implicitly called for schools to “fix” Australia’s perceived talent identification and development problem.

But I would argue that the role of school PE is to develop skills, knowledge and habits of mind for lifelong health and community engagement. Schools and teachers alone cannot have the responsibility to develop the next generation of Olympians – any more than they can have the sole responsibility to fix inactive, sedentary behaviour.