In the United Kingdom, Physical Education (PE) is compulsory in state schools until students reach the age of 16. That is, sports are compulsory for as long as formal education is mandated by law. Because there are many children who don’t want to participate in PE classes, I believe that students should be allowed a choice. If their parents agree, why should they be forced to jump on a trampoline or do calisthenics? PE class is different from other classes because it involves what one does with one’s body. We acknowledge the right of individuals to control their own bodies—to determine whether and when they have an operation, to determine where they go and what they do. Why is this any different?
It is a red herring to say that PE makes any serious difference to people’s health. There are more effective ways of ensuring a healthy population than pushing children to run laps around a freezing sports field once a week. For example, schools could be addressing the poor diets young people have today and encouraging them to walk or bicycle to school rather than rely on the car.
Furthermore, sports are a waste of school time and resources. One or two PE lessons a week make very little difference to an individual’s health, but they make a huge difference in a school’s budget. Mandatory PE requires a whole extra department in schools, wasting a great deal of money and time that could be better spent on academics. It also requires schools to be surrounded by a large amount of land for playing fields, making it prohibitively expensive to build new schools in urban areas. Given the average current pupil–teacher ratios, the quality of teaching in PE classes is necessarily low, and the classes may even be dangerous to students who are not properly supervised. Our children are burdened enough in schools already, especially at the older end of the system, with multiple examinations. PE simply adds, needlessly, to this hectic schedule.
Many people argue that playing team sports builds character, encourages students to work with others, teaches children how to win and lose with good grace, and builds strong school spirit through competition with other institutions. It is often, they say, the experience of playing on a team together which builds the strongest friendships at school, friendships which endure for years afterwards. Many say the same benefits derive from the common endurance of prison.
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. On that note, in an increasingly litigious age, a compulsory rather than voluntary sports program is a liability. More and more schools are avoiding team games such as rugby, soccer, hockey, and football due to the realistic fear of lawsuits. Teamwork can be better developed through music, drama, and community projects without the need to encourage an ultra-competitive ethos.
As for the argument that without compulsory PE, many members of society wouldn’t find out that they had a talent for a sport or even that they enjoyed it, students can discover this aptitude outside of school, without also discovering the bullying and humiliation that comes with PE classes more than with other lessons. The aim of compulsory PE isn’t being fulfilled at present in any case, as “sick notes” are produced with alarming regularity by parents complicit in their children’s wish to avoid it. Greater efforts to enforce it will only result in more deceit, children missing school for the entire day, or, in the most extreme cases, children being withdrawn from state education.