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Sport in Ireland

I recently read a report by the sports council on School Children and Sport in Ireland. These are some of the excerpts from this report.

The Facts – Main Findings of the ERSI School Children & Sport in Ireland

The main health benefits commonly associated with physical activity for children are improved increased academic performance, cardiovascular performance, strengthening of the musculoskeletal system, reduced stress and anxiety, enhanced self-esteem, reduced risk of chronic disease such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

The relationship between lack of physical activity and obesity has become a particularly important issue in recent years because of concerns about the rapidly rising incidence of obesity among children and adults (National Task Force on Obesity, 2005).

Children’s Physical, Personal, Social and emotional Development

In addition to its benefits for health, sport also makes an important contribution to children’s physical, personal, social and emotional development, a fact that underpins the place of physical education in the school curriculum (see, e.g., Department of Education and Science, 2003). While the contribution of physical education to children’s overall development is widely recognised, it is often lamented that sport and physical education are the poor relations of the school curriculum and receive less time and attention than examination subjects (MacPhail and Halbert, 2005).

However it has also been recognised that, whatever the role of PE in schools, extra-curricular sport is a central focus of the life and identity of many schools and plays a major role in defining what Lynch (1989) calls their ‘hidden curriculum’ – the ethos and informal structures and processes that play a large role in defining the character of schools and the overall educational experience encountered by students (see also Lynch and Lodge, 2002).

In order to appreciate the role of sport in schools and thus in children’s education and development, it is therefore necessary to look beyond PE and take account of extra-curricular sport and the sometimes central significance it has in school life.

The surveys on the Health Behaviour of School-aged Children generally found lower levels of physical activity: less than 40 per cent of girls and just over 60 per cent of boys reported that they exercised four or more times per week (Kelleher et al., 2003, pp. 64-65; see also Hickman et al., 2000).

Indirect evidence suggests that children are less active now than their counterparts of 50 years ago (Boreham and Riddoch, 2001).

As the Surgeon General in the United States has pointed out, a typical fast food meal consisting of cheeseburger, French fries and soft drink (1,500 calories) would take 2½ hours jogging at 10 minutes per mile to work off, and one jelly-filled doughnut is the energy equivalent of one hour of walking at a moderate pace (Department of Health and Human Services, 2001).

At primary level,

PE is delivered by class teachers rather than specialists. Primary teachers often undertake a PE element in their basic professional training or in-service training in PE but the general perception is that primary teachers are poorly equipped to deliver PE (MacPhail and Halbert, 2005, p. 300). Other problems at primary level include the lack of facilities and insufficient time, all of which lead to a general under-provision of PE at primary level (ibid.; see also National Children’s Office, 2004, p. 25).

The remit of sports policy extends over the whole field of competitive and recreational sport for the entire population. Its key aims include increasing public participation in sport, raising performance levels in sport and supporting high level sports competition (Irish Sports Council, 2003).

At the same time, increased reliance on sports clubs and the funding they receive under sports funding programmes as a means to support PE and sport in schools may have drawbacks. The most obvious is that the sports that some people view as already too dominant in schools – that is, team based competitive sports – may become more dominant still. Thus, for example, the Youth Field Sports programme is wholly oriented to GAA games, soccer and rugby, typical examples of the kinds of sport that cause concern in this regard. A further possible problem is that supports to schools delivered through local sports clubs could be supply driven rather than demand led: they will be distributed not primarily on the basis of the needs of schools but on the basis of the capacity of sports clubs to deliver – and that capacity might be in greatest supply in better-off areas where sport in schools may be already reasonably well catered for.

The minimum amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity now widely recommended for young people is 60 minutes per day on all, or most, days of the week.

Indicates relatively low levels of physical activity overall, especially among girls (we must keep in mind here that the data for weekdays refer to an average over five days, which might often entail a combination of some days with a lot of exercise and other days with little or even none). Averaged in this way, only 49 per cent of boys and 31 per cent of girls exceeded the one-hour exercise threshold per weekday, while 4 per cent of boys and 4 per cent of girls did no exercise at all on those days.

Attitudes to Sport – Page 38

Students were asked two sets of items that tapped into their attitudes to sport. The first set, which asked for their responses to a set of statements about sport that were generally favourable in tone, is displayed in Table 3.15. The striking feature of the students’ attitudes revealed by these items is how positive they are. The vast majority of students indicate that they enjoy PE and sport; they think they are good at sport, their families encourage them to play sport, and they consider themselves as sporty types. A smaller majority agrees that that they enjoy sport only if they are doing well at it, but one-third disagrees with this view. Attitudes are more divided in connection with playing when there is lots of pressure to win: half the students like to play under that circumstance but 43 per cent do not.

Full statements – ‘I enjoy PE and sport in school’; ‘I enjoy doing sport and exercise in my leisure time’; ‘I am good at sport and exercise’; ‘My family encourages me to do sport and exercise’; ‘I only enjoy sport and exercise if I do it well; ‘I am a sporty type of person’; ‘I like participating in sport where there is lots of pressure to win’.

Page 39

A second set of attitudinal items examined students’ feelings about a number of possibly negative aspects of sport (Table 3.17). The majority of students were not particularly bothered by most of these items, though substantial minorities had problems with most of them. For example, 29 per cent minded getting hot, sweaty or dirty either ‘a lot’ or ‘a bit’ and 38 per cent had similar attitudes to playing sport in bad weather. The one aspect of sport that a majority of students did not like was ‘If you get left out because you are not good enough’: one-third of students minded this a lot and a further quarter minded it a bit. Thus, the risk of feeling excluded in sport stands out as a widespread negative concern in what otherwise is a generally positive picture.

School Children & Sport in Ireland – 5th and 6th Grade – Page 60

Principals in primary schools report that the vast majority of schools provide PE classes but the number of those classes per student is low. As Figure 5.1 shows, 62 per cent of schools provided timetabled PE classes once a week and 31 per cent did so two or three times a week. Of the 137 schools sampled, only 3 held timetabled classes less than once a week, and 3 held classes four or more times a week.

Table 5.1 shows the range of activities children undertook in PE, based on a question to children about the sports they played in PE over the past year. Soccer was the most common, having been played by 72 per cent of children, and Gaelic football was next, with 69 per cent. Basketball was the most common sport among girls, having been played by 71 per cent of girls. It is notable that the proportion of primary school students who recorded swimming as an activity they had undertaken in PE over the past year (53 per cent) was much greater than the corresponding proportion among second-level students (13 per cent).

As Figure 5.2 shows, the main reason that the primary pupils give for not participating more in sports is the feeling that they are already doing enough. This is the case for both boys and girls (58 per cent of boys, 43 per cent of girls). Not having enough spare time and the school not offering the sport are two other reasons but on a much lesser scale. The results on this question indicate that there is no general feeling of discouragement with sport among the pupils, nor that girls feel very differently on this question from boys.

Pupil Teacher Ratios and Teachers involved in Sport

Table 5.6 shows the numbers of teachers and students in the schools in the primary school sample and the ratios between them. The pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools is on average 16 pupils with a maximum of 26. Out of a total average staff of 9 teachers per school, 6 were involved in sport with the pupils. There are, on average, 25 students per teacher involved in sport.

Travel

As Table 5.7 shows, the majority of Irish primary school children are driven to school, either by car (55%) or by bus (18%). Almost one in four children walk to school and less than one in twenty cycle to school. Of the children who walk or cycle to school the vast majority spend a quarter of an hour or less doing so (89.1 per cent for walking, 87.7 per cent for cycling). Thus, as in the case of second-level students, it is clear that travel to school is not a significant source of physical activity for primary school children.

Television viewing and other Extra-Curricular Activities

Table 5.9 shows that high levels of television viewing are common, with one in five boys and almost one in six girls watching more than four hours a day during the week and somewhat higher proportions doing so at the weekend. One in ten boys watches six hours or more television a day at weekends. The largest groups of children watch two to three hours of television per day, both during the week and at weekends.

Over Weight and Obesity -School Children & Sport in Ireland (p.73)

This chapter has been concerned with overweight and obesity among students in the second-level and primary schools samples. Among second-level students, 4.5% of boys and 3.8% of girls were found to be obese, and a further 15.4% of boys and 16.6% of girls were overweight. Taking these two categories together, approximately one in five second-level students was either obese or overweight. In fifth and sixth classes in primary schools, levels of obesity and overweight were of a broadly similar magnitude: 3.8% of boys and 4.3% of girls were obese, and a further 15.7% of boys and 15.8% of girls were overweight.

Among second-level students, 4.5 per cent of boys and 3.8 per cent of girls were found to be obese, and a further 15.4 per cent of boys and 16.6 per cent of girls were overweight. Taking these two categories together, approximately one in five second-level students was either obese or overweight. In fifth and sixth classes in primary schools, levels of obesity and overweight were of a broadly similar magnitude: 3.8 per cent of boys and 4.3 per cent of girls were obese, and a further 15.7 per cent of boys and 15.8 per cent of girls were overweight.

Obesity Conclusion

When we examined the relationships between measures of sports participation and physical activity on the one hand and body-mass on the other, we found no strong patterns of association. This is in keeping with the findings of research in other countries, where relationships in cross-sectional data between physical activity and risk of overweight or obesity have sometimes been found to be present and sometimes not, and when present, have usually been found to be weak. The lack of a robust relationship between physical inactivity and risk of obesity in research findings may arise either because measures of physical activity do not adequately capture real variations in energy expenditure or because variations in energy expenditure are too small to counteract the effects on weight of other factors, of which diet is likely to be the most important. There is some indication from our data that very high levels of exercise, well in excess of the minimum levels recommended by international authorities, may have an effect on body mass. This possibility has recently been raised in international discussion of the adequacy of existing recommendations regarding minimum levels of physical activity required to avoid weight gain, but we would need more refined measures than those available to us here to explore this question further.

Main Findings of the ERSI School Children & Sport in Ireland

Sport in Primary School

As in second-level schools, PE is widely provided in primary schools, but usually only once a week. Again echoing the situation in second-level schools, extra-curricular sport in the school and sport in clubs outside the school are more important than PE as outlets for physical activity among children. Team sports dominate the activities undertaken in the school – and here too, as in second-level schools, basketball is an important sport in the school but is much less prominent in the non-school context. Primary schools differ from second-level schools in the prominence of swimming and dance in the activities they undertake, both in the school and out of it (dance in this context presumably often means Irish dancing).

Primary schools seem to be worse off than second-level schools for sports facilities – they are more dependent on off-site facilities (except for basketball) and generally have access to a narrower range of facilities. Over 60% of children in fifth and sixth class in primary school watch two hours or more of television per day. Of the factors in children’s lives that were measured in the data, parents’ participation in sport had a positive effect on children’s participation in sport. So too did participation in other extra-curricular activities such as music or singing classes, suggesting that the more active children tended to be more active across a number of domains. The level of sports facilities in school had a positive effect on sports participation in the school, while television viewing had a negative effect on sports participation outside the school.

To see the full report go to http://www.irishsportscouncil.ie/

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