WOULD physical fitness MOTs for kids as young as four or five blight self- esteem for the body conscious, or boost chances of better health through a more active lifestyle?
The issue’s been put on the national agenda by leading sports medicine specialist Dr Andy Franklyn-Miller, who warns the physical fitness of future generations is at risk because PE lacks the standing of academic subjects in the school curriculum.
The days of regimented daily PE sessions – loved or loathed in equal measure by the blue serge knicker brigade of yesteryear – have gone for many primary schools, although most earmark at least one period a week and encourage children to stay active at playtime and through sports or other activities.
But with childhood obesity a big issue in Blackpool there are growing calls for greater emphasis on what’s become known as physical literacy.
Dr Franklyn-Miller would like physical aptitude tests timetabled in the same way as the Three Rs of old.
He urges greater emphasis on the two Cs – cardiovascular fitness and co-ordination.
There would be compulsory testing of physical aptitude at each of the key stages as children progress through school, starting with reception class – four and five-year-olds.
Dr Franklyn-Miller explains: “Let us achieve future success now by building on a PE curriculum that embraces push, pull, squat, brace, rotate, accelerate and change of direction.”
Blackpool-based psychologist and specialist sports therapist Steve Pope agrees.
“I can’t see any reason why kids shouldn’t have a physical fitness ‘MOT’ – it should have the same priority as academic subjects,” he says.
“If anything it can prove more significant – you’ve only got to look at the obesity epidemic in the young to appreciate the long term value. I don’t think compulsory tests at an early age would reinforce negativity or low self-esteem in overweight or less able children.
“I think parents project fears upon their children and, frankly, the earlier kids get lessons in staying active and having good health the better. What the kids learn they take home and tell their parents – and they stand to gain most.”
The son of a former professional footballer, Mr Pope is also involved in psychology support for Fleetwood Town players.
“At club level we also go out into the community and talk to four to six-year-olds and encourage them to come to games and put them through sports programmes. It doesn’t traumatise them, they love it. It’s serious fun. My own kids are proof of that, two of them play football, Alex is 11, and with Blackpool, and Meghan, 13, is with Blackburn Rovers.
“If we educate children early, it overcomes anything inherent in the culture from parents. If we get them at four and five to become health and sport and weight-conscious, the children will educate their parents rather than the other way round. They grow up with health as priority. It’s now part of my life and it is for my kids too.
“It also gives them an outside interest away from computers and an outlet for stress too, because it releases natural endorphins that calm you down. My kids always tell me to go out for a run with the dog if they know I’m having a stressful time.”
Last year the National Child Measurement Programme revealed one in 10 pupils in reception class were classified as obese – 9.8 per cent – a figure which doubled (18.7 per cent) in year six (aged 10-11 years).
Around 13 per cent of reception class pupils were classified as overweight, as opposed to almost 15 per cent by Year Six. Obesity was more prevalent in urban areas than rural areas – and particularly in areas of high social deprivation such as Blackpool.
But Mary Kelly, integrated services manager of Thames Road Children’s Centre, Blackpool, hits back at the national report’s “generalised” criticism of PE, and adds: “It suggests primary schools lack expertise, but I’d say our PE is of high quality and involves people of great expertise.
“We also have extra curricular clubs like judo clubs and outdoor play, soft play, and physical exercise compulsory from being very small, and which builds up stamina. The main purpose of the report seems to be to put medical sports people into schools, but who’s going to fund that with education funding being lost left, right, left and centre?
“There’s criticism the Government hasn’t used the Olympics as a platform to promote health and physical education, too – but we will definitely be using the Olympics to involve all our children.”
Hawes Side Primary School pupils Oliver and Bradley Quarmby, eight and five, are both learning to ice skate, with Oliver hoping to join the children’s Christmas charity ice show. “Our dad’s an ice hockey player and mum likes to dance,” says Bradley.
Mum Karen admits: “Physical fitness can’t come soon enough for my money.”
Oliver concludes: “Mum makes sure we have fruit in our lunch bags and keeps us healthy. I love football, PE and most sports – but not skipping. I hate skipping...”