The London Olympics. Remember them? Not so long ago we were talking about their legacy, hoping it would inspire a new physically active generation. A timely legacy, given children in the UK are among the unhealthiest in the world.
Fast-forward 18 months, and new official guidance from the department of education is advising teachers to use physical activity as punishment. In an apparent return to Tom Brown’s School Days, it is now being encouraged to discipline misbehaviour with forced exercise.
Rationalising his position, Michael Gove, secretary of state for education, has urged teachers to get tough in an attempt to reconnect with traditional values. Tough punishments are, he argues, “just as crucial to an effective education as praising and rewarding good behaviour”.
By assuming rewards and punishments work, such sentiments betray the real origin of these guidelines that are staunchly grounded in the ideology of self-interest. In treading this path, Gove eschews so-called “trendy”, student-centred approaches and, in an all too familiar fashion, has pulled on the heartstrings of Fleet Street. Yet these guidelines have far reaching consequences beyond that of Gove’s political posturing, and it is only right he should be held to account for them.
Putting off children for life
Using physical activity as punishment is dangerously shortsighted for a number of reasons. Not least of which is the reduction of a physiological need, rich in intrinsic worth and an essential part of human health, to a deliberate short-term lever servicing a means other than that of the exercise itself.
This change represents a motivational chasm, teaching children that they should no longer want to exercise for its benefits but, rather, that they should see it as an onerous, chore-like, task. This is an absurd, upside-down health literacy, whereby obedience is rewarded with physical inactivity. It is, of course, totally ill-conceived. And, what’s more, it’s highly unlikely to work.
We have long known that punishment systems bring into being exactly the type of student the systems imagine. When punishments are made salient, learning becomes more about complicity than the deep, inquisitive, and creative thinking that our 21st century economy needs.
Instead of regulating better behaviour, punishments suppress misbehaviour only while the threat of punishment is present. As such, they do not address the root cause of the problem.
Behavioural issues in school are multifaceted. They involve a complex interaction of economic, social and environmental factors that originate far away from the school gates. A more nuanced approach is required that emphases community and social support for parents and children, giving them the information they need to understand the importance of engagement in school. Punishing children with forced exercise ignores the bigger picture, and serves no purpose beyond contributing to the ill-health of a nation that desperately needs more physically active citizens.
And herein lies the crux of this shortsightedness. To become physically active adults, it is a necessary prerequisite for children to have positive experiences of physical activity. Reducing physical activity to punishment tells children that it has only negative appeal. In doing so, continuing to push this guidance runs the very real risk of putting children off physical activity for life. Only the most dogmatic of politicians could ignore this.
Tough punishments may make good headlines, but they also have consequences beyond them. We need an education system that actively encourages children to make informed choices, not just about the subjects they study but also the behaviours they engage in. One of the most important of these for both them, and their future society, is to be physically active. I join with others including marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, to urge the department for education to repeal this guidance.