Bullying teachers and those big knickers put me off games for life

Bullying teachers and those big knickers put me off games for life

Carol Sarler


00:17 GMT, 3 May 2012



00:17 GMT, 3 May 2012

Out of reach: Dreaded PE lessons put many schoolgirls off exercise

Out of reach: Dreaded PE lessons put many schoolgirls off exercise

There is no smell quite like that of a schoolgirls’ PE changing room, and probably nobody who remembers it more vividly than I do.

It was a mixture of sweaty clothes, wet towels and rubber shoes – and none of it was properly disguised by the gallons of forbidden cheap perfume.

Yet the reason I can recall it so immediately is that, throughout my teenage years, I would rather hide, motionless, under a pile of this aromatic horror – for an hour at a time, if necessary – than get my sports kit on and take my place on the hockey pitch or netball court.

Anything was better than the most
enduring misery to have haunted me from then until now: PE.

Or, if you
prefer that great misnomer everyone uses: ‘games’. I rarely got away
with it, of course.

All too often, the track-suited games mistress Miss
Smith (we called her ‘Smitch’) would pounce upon us wretched fugitives
and force us to play ball.

Now a survey has shown how we all lost out as a result. The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation has carried out a study that concludes that enforced PE lessons at secondary school put women off exercise for the rest of their lives.

It was fine at primary school when ‘games’ tended to be precisely that, with boys and girls equally keen to join in. But by the age of 14, only 12 per cent of girls are interested in physical activity compared with more than double that figure among boys. And from there, it’s a downhill slouch all the way to adulthood.

Naturally, I commend the Foundation for its diligent questioning of the 1,500 participants of its survey. But out here, in couch-potato land, many more thousands of us could have saved them the trouble.

We could have told them years ago that forcing schoolgirls to play competitive sports is an anachronistic cruelty that – counter-intuitive as it may seem – probably contributes more to our plague of obesity than any authority has hitherto dared to admit.

PE: Institutionalised exercise leaves many young people cold

PE: Institutionalised exercise leaves many young people cold

In the hands of an especially stern teacher, PE is a licence for institutionalised humiliation, and one that crushes the spirit of girls at an already vulnerable age.

To be bellowed at to ‘give it more wellie!’ when you are already at your limit of endurance, is an open incitement to all other players to administer the excruciating laughter of scorn. From there it is but a small step to bullying.

Can any less-than-athletic schoolgirl forget the agonising process whereby anointed captains chose their teams, making their selections one by one, in order of preference Wielding more power than any teenager should have, they routinely left little spotty, fat, gingery or bespectacled Betty till last.

Always. Every time. And without a murmur of dissent from a teacher — even though if pupils tortured individuals in this way in any other walk of school life, it would be stamped on from high.

Well, you say, don’t these things apply to boys too

Yes, they do. But girls — and, please, do believe me here — are capable of being much nastier to other girls than boys usually are to boys. Even without trying.

Let us stick with Betty, as an example — or, if you care for accuracy, we might as well call her Carol because it’s what happened to me in my schooldays.

She finally gets scooped into a team, amid barely suppressed gasps of horror, and sooner or later the ball comes her way. She misses it, of course.

The collective, theatrical groan that follows lives with her for the rest of her downcast day, sapping her confidence in everything else she does.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I certainly believe that to learn what it feels like to let yourself down should be part of everyone’s schooling: the exam failed because you didn’t revise; the C grade instead of an A, because you didn’t take the time to check your essay for errors; or the report that you really, really don’t want to take home to your parents.

But I do not believe that schoolchildren should be forced in this way to experience what it feels like to let down other people, aka your ‘team-mates’ — that is a bitter enough pill for most adults to swallow where a boss or fellow workers or a spouse is concerned, let alone for a hormonal adolescent.

Most of all, school should never be allowed to become an arena for public failure that is not your fault. If maths or English is a problem, you can be shamed or inspired to work harder. If you are a shrimp of a lass faced with a mammoth high-jump, you can do nothing at all to grow more.

And if all this angst is more than one might reasonably impose on either sex, for girls there is worse to come. Skimpy sports kits and nakedness in communal showers can undermine teenage girls who are already desperately body conscious not least because of the endless, air-brushed images in the media.

Hard to compete: Comparing yourself to Cheryl and the super-fit girl flaunting herself in the shower are bound to fail

Hard to compete: Comparing yourself to Cheryl and the super-fit girl flaunting herself in the shower are bound to fail

If you are already battered daily by invitations to compare yourself to Rihanna or Cheryl, how can you fail to compare yourself as well to that super-fit girl, who is starkers and flaunting herself in the shower

Then there are the ogling men. I shall never forget the day when our girls’ school had a small army of young, male builders working barely yards from the netball court; men who clearly thought all their birthdays had come at once.

They couldn’t take their eyes off us, 16 and half-naked as we were, with our bare legs and blooming young breasts (or, in my case, not-yet blooming — which, on balance, was probably worse).

It’s a situation that’s led to dangerously confusing mixed messages and we’re still doing it to schoolgirls today. On the one hand we ask them to strip to Lycra-clad nothingness for ‘games’ in public; on the other we chastise them if they show too much leg when they go out for an evening,

The pity of it is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Girls aren’t physically more idle than boys; they’ll happily pull on leggings and sweats and throw themselves into dance classes. Or yoga. Or treadmills. Or Pilates. Or any number of contemporary — and, I suspect, crucially — non-competitive, non-team forms of exercise.

Indeed, many of those questioned for the recent survey said they would like to have these options, but they simply weren’t on offer. The question is why

Most schools pride themselves on being up to date. The first thing you’ll be shown on a visit is the new IT lab. Or the computers used for the school magazine. Or technological teaching aids unheard of in my own Bunsen-burner days. Yet when it comes to ‘games’, we’re stuck in the last century. The attitude is still make ’em run, make ’em hurt, make ’em cry.

By all means, if there’s a future Dame Kelly Holmes in school, her competitive spirit should be nurtured. But so, too, should the opportunities for those who yearn, instead, for a cheap tape-deck and the right music to fire them through an exhausting workout of jazz ballet.

The fatter we get as a nation, the more important this is. And if our education authorities do not heed the conclusions of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, they can pop round to mine, take a look at me — and therein see the future.

I’m too porky, too soft, too lazy and too stiff . . . all because I hated PE so much it’s four decades since I last put on a plimsoll.