Jamaica Observer: By Diwani Masters – There is concern among members of the sporting fraternity that enough emphasis is not being placed on physical education (PE) in schools at the primary and secondary levels.

United States-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “Physical education provides cognitive content and instruction designed to develop motor skills, knowledge, and behaviours for physical activity and physical fitness. Supporting schools to establish physical education daily can provide students with the ability and confidence to be physically active for a lifetime.”

This is why Carole Beckford, a sports consultant and trained PE teacher, is concerned about the lasting effects of infrequent PE classes in schools.

“Our health bill is likely to increase, likewise NCDs [non-communicable diseases] as the focus is not heavy on physical exercise.”

But Beckford says that schools are misplacing their priorities as many put greater emphasis on their involvement in sporting competitions than on PE, which is where the fundamentals of those sports are taught.

“Based on some recent debates, there may be suggestions that sport is being overused in high schools; is distracting the institutions from their core work; is damaging the reputation of students,” Beckford said in a post on her blog published on October 6, 2018.

“While there are some truths, there are also arguments to support the benefits of being involved in sport at some level, either directly or even as a supporter.

“My argument is that the rest of the education system needs to catch up so it can efficiently and effectively manage its portfolio, which includes physical education. The study of physical education is academic, it looks closely at the study of the relationship with mind, body, and soul. What about that isn’t academic?”

Beckford told the Jamaica Observer in an interview earlier this week that this problem persists and its impact has been significant.

“Not enough contact hours have been able to be done and there has been extra focus on sports teams that are preparing for inter-scholastic competitions and so the regular contact sessions which should be at least 70 minutes per week have been cut.”

The Ministry of Education and Youth mandates PE as a regular and core subject on each school’s curriculum, but the Observer has found that there are some schools across the island where PE sessions have been infrequent, especially since the return to face-to-face teaching since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Education and Youth Minister Fayval Williams says she was not aware that there are schools across Jamaica whose PE sessions are infrequent.

“That shouldn’t be the case,” Williams told the Observer. “We’ve specified a minimum time per week that the children should have. I can’t say that minimum off the top of my head, but I know it’s a policy that there should be PE in school and the minimum time frame to allow for that.”

A primary school in the Corporate Area had PE scheduled once every six weeks on its return to normality after COVID-19 but has since returned to weekly PE sessions for each of its classes.

One Corporate Area preparatory school’s principal says most of the school’s sports programmes remained dormant not only because of the school’s small student population, making it difficult to build teams, but also the costs associated with renting a field for training and playing games. This principal also says the school’s PE programme struggled to restart after the pandemic because of the high cost of hiring a PE teacher.

Beckford is also concerned about this issue.

“The number of PE teachers in schools has been cut for a while now,” she said. “A rough estimate suggests that at least half of the schools have the required number of PE teachers to fulfil a standard. Head of GC Foster [College of Physical Education and Sport], Maurice Wilson, has said that to go back to full capacity each primary school should have four and high schools six PE teachers to return to some level of normalcy.”

Youth Football League’s Youth Cup organiser Paula Pinnock says she, too, has seen issues at the grass roots level related to the lack of focus placed on PE in schools. She is concerned that too many schools do not see the value in balancing sports as well as physical education [as the two are separate] with academics to ensure children grow into well-rounded members of society.

“The truth of the matter is some kids will always suffer more than others,” she said. “Animal Farm tells you that, ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’ I have found in organising tournaments that there is a greater disparity in some schools getting back on track.

“Last year, when we were doing our U-9 of the Junior Cup, you could hardly find schools to enter. We only hosted the U-9 in Kingston because we could not find enough schools to enter. The fact of the matter is there were not enough schools that have resumed their football programmes. The same thing happened in 2022 when we just launched, we found that we had a lot more prep schools entered than primary because their programmes were just not on track. They hadn’t started playing football anymore, they were still getting PE departments together, coaches getting the kids back into training, people didn’t have uniforms or gear, and there was a discrepancy.

“We still haven’t gotten the memo that sport and education go hand in hand and if you want well-rounded, well-developed students, having a student athlete is the best way to go,” she said. “That’s why even at the high school level there’s so much focus on sport.”

Beckford says the Ministry of Health and Wellness should focus on redeveloping the mindset of all Jamaicans regarding being physically active.

“Parents should also insist that their children are receiving the requisite contact hours for work in and out of the classroom,” she said.

Beckford says the Ministry of Education and Youth should also reintroduce PE as mandatory in schools from early childhood up to age 19. But Williams says this is already required across all schools.

“As you know, in our schools we do timetables that include PE, meaning there’s a slot in the timetable for PE,” she said. “Across the length and breadth of our schools it is encouraged, because we know that our children go into classrooms and they tend to sit for a good part of the day and we want to inculcate in them the need for physical activity so that as they grow to become teenagers and adults they will carry that with them as well.”

Beckford has three recommendations.

“We need to reform the curriculum to include more PE time,” she said. “We should also evaluate in three years how it has helped, then intervene with the adjustments. We can’t improve on the physical spaces in schools without consideration for recreation and play.”

Top Feature Photo: Action from the Youth Football League Junior Cup competition between Windward Road Primary and Emmanuel Christian Academy at Constant Spring football field on Saturday, October 1, 2022. The tournament’s organiser has lamented the difficulty in finding schools to compete in previous years because of the lack of PE or active sports programmes across the nation Youth Football League