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Debate: Physical Education

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Should Physical Education in schools be compulsory?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Alex Deane. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.

Background and context

In the UK, Physical Education (PE) is compulsory in state schools until the age of 16 – that is, that sports are compulsory for as long as education is compulsory. Every year, more and more parents complain to their children’s schools about PE; they believe that their children shouldn’t have to participate in physical activity if they don’t want to. Proponents of PE, however, believe that it is a crucial element of all-round schooling – and our society’s well-being.

Argument #1


Participation in sport promotes health. Government is, or should be, concerned with the health of its citizens. Encouraging physical activity in the young through compulsory PE fights child obesity and contributes to forming lifelong habits of exercise. This doesn’t have to be through traditional team sports; increasingly schools are able to offer exercise in the form of swimming, gymnastics, dance, weight training, use of a multigym, aerobics, etc.


Students should be allowed a choice. Lots of children don’t want to do this. If their parents agree, why should they be forced to (or forced to lie in producing a sick note)? It is different from any other lesson - it is about what one does with one’s body. In any case, it is a red herring to say that PE makes any serious difference to people’s health. There are plenty of more effective ways of ensuring a healthy population than pushing children round a freezing sports pitch once a week; not least would be addressing the disgusting diets our young have today, and encouraging walking or cycling to school rather than total reliance on the car.

Argument #2


Physical Education is an important part of holistic schooling. PE is an aspect of school being about more than just book learning – it is about educating the whole person, a holistic education that betters us in an all-round sense, rather than a merely academic experience. Some aspects of physical education are vital for future wellbeing, e.g. being able to swim, learning to lift heavy weights safely.


Sport is a waste of school time and resources. It creates a whole extra department in schools, wasting a great deal of money and time that could be better spent on academic lessons. It also requires schools buildings to be surrounded by a large amount of land for playing fields, making it prohibitively expensive to build new schools in urban areas

Argument #3


School sport is about discovering gifts. If not driven by PE, many in society wouldn’t find out that they had a talent for a sport, or even that they enjoyed it. Once experienced, sport can be enjoyed for life, while for some it will provide the possibility of a college scholarship and even a career.


Students can ‘discover’ these delights outside of school, without ‘discovering’ the bullying that comes with PE more than with any other lesson. They are more likely to obtain specialist coaching at sports clubs.

Argument #4


The quest for national sporting achievement begins in schools. If we don’t have compulsory PE, it is much harder to pick out athletes to represent our country on a wider stage. Even with a ‘sports academy’ model run along Australian lines, it’s much easier to find suitable individuals with a full sports program in every school.


Schools aren’t supposed to be about fostering achievers for the state - that smacks of Stalinism. Schools should be tailored to the individual - if the individual student doesn’t want to participate in sports, they shouldn’t have to.

Argument #5


Without school support, sports will collapse. If full classes aren’t made up, then team activities will end by sheer lack of numbers, no matter if several very talented individuals are at the school (or even potentially talented - they’ll never know without the program). If voluntary take-up of sport in schools is too low, then schools will shut down PE programmes so that there is no choice at all. Not everyone is academic: why deprive those talented sports students of their one chance to shine?


Forcing children that don’t want to play to make up teams in order to allow others to shine smacks of rigid education from a bygone era. In any case, in an increasingly litigious age, a compulsory rather than voluntary sports program is a liability.

Argument #6


Sport is different to, say Latin - it encompasses life choices (most importantly, a concern for physical fitness, but also working in a team etc) that ought to be encouraged in all students. Extra classes for interested students can take place separately, and often do in the form of fixtures with other schools, championships etc. Sport shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to academia, an either/or – it should be a part of every student’s life in addition to their other studies.


Successful sporting nations like Australia realise that sports, like any other specialised subjects, are best taught to selected groups that display both talent and interest in the field - forcing all to compete holds back the able and punishes the less able. The right way to go is to liberate those that don’t want to participate, and allow those that are extremely keen to go to academies that focus their talents more efficiently than a regular school ever could.

Argument #7


Sport helps to forge character. Playing team sports builds character and encourages students to work with others. It teaches children how to win and lose with good grace and builds a strong school spirit through competition with other institutions. It is often the experience of playing on a team together which builds the strongest friendships at school, which endure for years afterwards.


Many say the same benefits derive from the common endurance of prison. In particular, injuries sustained through school sport and the psychological trauma of being bullied for sporting ineptitude can mark people for years after they have left school. Teamwork can be better developed through music, drama, community projects, etc. without the need to encourage an ultra-competitive ethos.


  • This house believes that physical education should not be compulsory
  • This house hates sport
  • This House would make school sport voluntary

In legislation, policy, and the world

See also

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