Are We Raising Generation Inactive?

Is academic attainment being given a higher priority than the health of our pupils?

Previously, I wrote a slightly tongue-in-cheek piece suggesting that cricket might offer one possible answer to the pressing problem of future-proofing the career prospects of our children in the face of rapidly growing competition from highly skilled robots.  That was always intended as the introduction to a multi-chapter post but, despite re-visiting the English national game, this is not the second innings of Why Robots are Stumped by Cricket. Instead, I want to look at an issue that has been a hot topic in the UK media over the past week and a genuine concern for both parents and educators for a number of years: our increasingly inactive children.

The BBC reported that former England cricket captain, Mike Gatting, has suggested that relentless summer exam pressure is at least in part to blame for teenagers turning away from physical activity.


We want to push sport as a way of tackling obesity and low self-esteem among young people but summer term exams cause an awful lot of problems. The teenage years are when young sportsmen and women develop their skills, that’s when they really learn – but they’re all doing exams and, quite rightly, their parents want them to be the very best they can be.

It is certainly true that school cricket has struggled to compete with the demands of the examination season; the idyllic pastoral summer term scenes of Tom Brown’s Schooldaysare rapidly becoming a thing of the past and even in the independent sector schools that used to run second, third and fourth elevens are struggling to put just one in the field in May and June. Mr Gatting’s suggestion is that we should look again at the timing of important examinations within the academic year but, of course, exams are just part of the problem and whenever we schedule them they will always have an impact on extra-curricular activities.

Others have sought to look elsewhere for the source of the malaise and many choose to lay the blame squarely on the addictive allure of technology. Just this week Ali Oliver, Chief Executive of the Youth Sport Trust, warned us that future generations of young people are at risk of living their lives devoted to technology as hostages to handheld devices, and disengaged from physical activity. Her comments were timed to coincide with the release of The Class of 2035 report. The report, conducted for the Youth Sport Trust by the Future Foundation to mark the charity’s 20th anniversary attempts to provide some insight into young people’s relationship with physical activity today and twenty years from now. It warns that PE and school sport are at a critical crossroads and the subject should remain a key priority to avoid the development of a physically and socially disengaged future generation, over-dependent on technology with low physical, social and emotional wellbeing.

The Net Children Go Mobile report in Ireland based on surveys conducted by researchers at the Dublin Institute of Technology highlights similar concerns about technology addiction and examines just how many children are often online after 9pm. It looks at the potentially toxic combination of being always-on and possibly exposed to distressing content. As with drug use, the addiction itself is one problem, while the ‘substance’ or content of that addiction can cause different kinds of harm.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, UKActive’s Chair and Britain’s most decorated Paralympian, is certainly supportive of the key findings in the Class of 2035 report, but chooses to look at the bigger picture:

The current national ambition focused solely around PE lessons is simply not bold enough. We should aim higher and demand more. The focus should be on ensuring that children are given all the necessary support possible in order to achieve the 60 minutes of daily activity recommended in the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines.

This does not mean we wish to see 60 minutes of timetabled PE per day. Instead, we are calling for a focus on a ‘whole school approach’. This means looking at how children travel to and from school, the manner in which they integrate activity as simple as standing in lessons, the development of more effective and structured use of play time opportunities and the provision of pre- and post-school activities. Schools which have adopted such an approach have had outstanding success in enhancing the health and wellbeing of their students as well as their educational attainment.

There is no doubt that the pressure to achieve top grades is putting a squeeze on school sport, and most parents would admit to having concerns about ‘screen time’ and their children’s umbilical attachment to their digital devices but, as Baroness Grey-Thompson points out, there needs to be a wider debate. In our risk-averse society with our towns and cities struggling to accommodate ever-increasing traffic children are rarely allowed to walk to school or play in the street; fast-food culture is all-pervasive and the pace of 21stCentury life rarely leaves time for the home-cooked family meal around the dinner table, or the family evening at the swimming pool or cricket club.

For me the answer is straightforward – balance. Schools must work hard to strike a reasonable balance between academic study and physical activity, between sport for all and sporting excellence, between traditional team games and individual sports, and activities that might appeal to children with very different interests. Dance and Drama are as much part of this debate as football or athletics, as are hiking and climbing.

Parents too must aim to adopt a balanced approach – between risk and over-protectiveness, between work and family life, between structured disciplines and the freedom to choose. There is nothing wrong (and a lot that’s right!) about technology and the remarkable connectivity it affords young people, but this doesn’t mean that our children have the right to use it without restriction. Time spent in front of the screen, access to particular content, passwords and privacy – we must set the ground rules, and we must think carefully about the sort of behaviours we ourselves are modelling for the next generation.

When I look at the children here at BST, I do not see Generation Inactive – far from it – but I do see the need to work ever harder to establish a real sense of balance in all that we do both in and beyond the classroom.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Brian Christian and published with kind permission.

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About Brian Christian 11 Articles
Principal at the British School in Tokyo since 2012 and a Board member of the Council of British International Schools. A proud Manxman.

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