From tackling obesity to producing sporting heroes: Physical Education is not a panacea:

On Thursday, Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, warned in a report on primary and secondary Physical Education (PE) that some PE lessons were failing to provide enough strenuous activity to improve pupils fitness and that not enough young people were playing competitive sport to a high level. Such claims hardly conceal the assumed purpose and nature of PE; to produce sporting elite and to respond to putative health crises, such as the obesity epidemic.   Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said “In particular, we found there often wasn’t enough physical, strenuous activity in PE lessons”. Alongside this, last week, the government published its draft school curriculum, Children’s Minister Edward Timpson said: “The new PE curriculum will put competitive sport at the heart of school life, ending the damaging ‘prizes for all’ culture. As well as helping us to unearth the next Jack Wilshere, Rebecca Adlington or Stuart Broad, this will build character, embed values of fairness and respect, and give all children the opportunities they need to be fit and healthy.”

Reading this, you might be surprised that I am not alone in challenging the ‘common-sense’ and misguided belief that Physical Education ought to be on the frontline in the ‘war on obesity’.  There exists a community of sociologists, social commentators, scientists and health professionals who highlight the uncertainties and complexities of obesity science and reveal the damaging effects of a simplistic weight-centric approach to health.  Of course, policies are inevitably complex and are (re)appropriated in schools with potentially positive and negative consequences. But, there are a number of built in assumptions about the drive to tackle obesity and increase fitness as a rational for PE that raise some serious questions.


The designation of obesity as a crisis of epidemic proportions plays no small role in propagating the view that PE ought to be at the front line in the war on obesity. This continues to drive public opinion about the nature and purpose of PE as if it ought to make a measurable impact on the body weight of populations of young people. The very nature of ‘crisis’ profoundly influences the way people understand a problem and perceive that doing something is better than doing nothing, even if we are yet to know the efficacy of that ‘something’.  This itself seems a rather fragile basis on which to either make a rational for PE or indeed to combat a putative health crisis. In part, this is because obesity science is full of uncertainties and rarely are these mentioned in the media nor the health policies associated with obesity. Whilst it is clear that there are potential health risks at the extreme ends of the weight continuum, for the vast majority of people who might be ‘overweight’ the evidence is rather less clear. The investment into a proliferation of anti-obesity policies and programmes on the basis of this science therefore seems dubious. Indeed,  Dr Michael Gard, in his book The End of The obesity Epidemic argues that predictions of a global health crisis have not yet materialised and that is impossible to establish an objective truth on which to develop policy. The complexities of weight and health are such that no simple solutions exist, yet these complexities disappear in political rhetoric.

Equally, Gard also argues that there is little empirical evidence on the efficacy of these policies and interventions in actually addressing obesity. Indeed many interventions have failed to reveal an impact on BMI.  This is partly because many anti-obesity programmes and interventions fail to engage with the complexities of body weight, weight loss and physical activity and the science lacks a clear solution. Yet, time and money continues to be invested in simple solutions such as ‘increasing vigorous activity’.  The suggestion that children should be doing more strenuous and vigorous activity ignores a particularly crucial point in addressing young people’s disengagement and disaffection with Physical Education; decades of research reveals that children do no like repetitive, strenuous activities, particularly those associated with health related ‘fitness’. Even if one supports the view that there is an obesity epidemic, this, surely, is not the way to encourage lifelong physical activity which is culturally relevant, enjoyable and sustained. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that physically active children will inevitably become physically active adults. This is hardly surprising when we consider the often narrow range of ‘competitive’ sports encouraged in PE proposals and the diverse range of culturally relevant lifestyle activities which might appeal to us as adults (how many of us continue to play hockey, netball, athletics once we’ve left school?). How quickly do we forget that school experiences are not isolated; we make decisions based on our broader economic, social contexts and physicality as we move across the lifespan.  Thus, the investment in changing children’s physical activity now, tells us something about the integral positioning children have come to hold within current socio-cultural and socio-economic discourses about the ‘future’ of neoliberal society where ‘weight’ and ‘lifestyle’ feature as part of the neoliberal constitution of personal responsibility.

The turn towards a health based focus and its accompanying modes of regulation and surveillance of young people’s bodies plays no small part in their disengagement with physical activity nor the increase in disaffection even primary age children are experiencing with their own bodies. More than ever, young people are engaging in disordered eating, displaying disaffected relationships with their bodies and engaging in harmful forms of body modification or physical practices. Research I’ve undertaken with Professor John Evans (Loughborough University) and Laura De Pian (University of Bath), with young people across a range of schools sites in the UK have revealed the damaging consequences of school policy based on fitness, health imperatives and weight loss to the well being and identities of young people. Fears about the declining future health of current generations of young people are used as justification for intervening in people’s lives at an increasingly younger age and on an ever greater scale, through lunch box inspections, moral commentary on young people’s bodies, Body Mass Indexing, weighing and fitness testing are some of the approached being used in schools. The scrutiny of young people’s bodies has not only become relentless but also converges with broader discourses of neo-liberalism. Rarely have so many people have been made to feel so bad about their bodies or their routine maintenance through eating, moving, exercising, and so forth, with so little concern or sensitivity as to the potentially damaging effects of this especially on the lives of girls and young women. This interest in obesity reflects a biopolitcal shift toward organizing, shaping and regulating bodies in particular ways, through a simplistic focus on “weight”, irrespective of ‘health’.

Moreover, the appropriation of PE as a place to regulate, address medical issues, change behaviours and shape bodies (towards thin, supposedly healthy forms) silences other ways of developing PE in more creative and engaging ways that are of cultural relevance to younger generations. These are important points for the policy debates, lest we revert to a form of PE which is reduced to the shaping and training of young people’s bodies towards idealised and often unobtainable ‘ideals’.  After all, we are talking here about physical education not wider physical activity or sport – is it really the purpose of education to fight obesity? Is this what physical education ought to be about? Is this a good investment of time and money? The very idea that schools are designated as an appropriate place to tackle the ‘obesity crisis’ says something about the way PE is storied into existence in the public domain.  The announcements this week reflect once again that PE, perhaps rather naively is far too often constituted as a panacea, and charged with combating all manner of social problems from obesity to youth disaffection to producing the next sporting elite in a way other subjects are not. How is the profession to respond to the performative tendencies of neoliberalism which shape the focus on PE? Equally, how is it to take a seemingly impossible task to retain a commitment to high quality PE, raise its often marginalised profile and at the same time promote democratic and inclusive principals (which is surely one of the key purposes of education). There are enormous pressures on teachers in what is a policy saturated environment – the danger here is that both the subject and teachers are vulnerable in its pursuit of the reduction of BMI or increase in vigorous activity (no doubt destined to fail). We must make space within which other ways of developing PE can be brought into fruition – those which move beyond the sort of terrors of the culture of performativity Stephen Ball alerts us to. Are there alternative voices to be heard in this debate that tell a different story of health, well-being and community?

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