• Dr Jason Tee // PhD (Sport Science)

Physical Education in South Africa is disappearing fast – Are we okay with that?


Here are some facts.

  1. South Africa was recently rated as the UNHEALTHIEST country out of 191 countries surveyed in the Indigo Global Wellness Index.

  2. Only half of the children in this country are achieving the internationally recommended 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity[1].

  3. In South Africa, the cost of treating lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and hypercholesterolaemia is estimated at almost R 500 billion per year, which is approximately 10% of the countries GDP[2].

These are serious problems, our country is in a state of health crisis!

I don’t usually start my articles with such a shocking introduction, but I feel like its necessary to get people’s attention. Our country’s health problems are likely symptomatic of our larger societal problems. For example, it was recently revealed that unemployment in South Africa has grown to 29% (Mail & Guardian). It’s pretty hard to get excited about physical activity when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. It clear that we have some big issues, and there is no single magic wand solution that is going to make it all right – but we can do better. One of the areas where we can do better is Physical Education (PE).

PE has fallen by the wayside in South African schools. In 1996 PE ceased to be a standalone subject in schools and was grouped with Life Orientation (LO) as part of the outcomes based education movement. In 2003 PE was phased out as a subject for those completing bachelor of education degrees. While PE remains as a component of the LO curriculum it is now generally taught by teachers with limited knowledge of physical development, and in most cases fails to give students the basic physical skills intended by the program. As a result, schools are progressively disinvesting in PE, with a number of schools I know now limiting their PE provision to assessment days that occur once per term. It has recently been announced that LO will no longer be a compulsory subject from 2023 onwards, which makes me wonder whether PE has any future at all in South African schools?

The link between our country’s state of health and our dying PE program is physical literacy. Physical literacy is the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life[3]. The physical literacy movement proposes that if children learn both the skills required and motivation for physical activity when they are young, they will remain physically active throughout their lives. Children who don’t acquire fundamental sports movement skills when they are young lack confidence when taking part in physical activities[4], and are less likely to meet daily physical activity guidelines[5]. This phenomenon has been labelled the ‘proficiency barrier’.

Not exposing our children to sport and physical activity when they are young sets them up for a lifetime of poor health and risk of disease – to me this is absolutely unacceptable. So where should our children learn to play and love sport? Less than half of the children in this country have access to organised sport in the form of community clubs[6], but the vast majority attend school. Schools therefore have a responsibility to develop physical literacy in exactly the same way that they have a responsibility to develop literacy and numeracy – the health of our children depends on it.

It could be argued that many schools in South Africa are still fulfilling this mandate because despite the decreased investment in Physical Education, they still run very healthy sports programs. I don’t think that this is an adequate substitute. The problem is that voluntary sports programs attract children who already have reasonably developed movement skills and are already motivated to participate in physical activity. What about those who aren’t? Where is their platform for development and exposure? If we reduce physical education in favour of sports coaching, we leave behind those who need exposure to physical activity the most. An additional consideration is that if our exposure to physical activity is driven purely by sport involvement, there will be a tendency to focus on the skills required for one or a few sports, rather than broad all round physical competency. There are a number of benefits to having a broad, non-specialised skill base for sportsmen which I will describe further in a follow up article.

The Department of Education has been repeatedly lobbied on this point, but these arguments have fallen on deaf ears. Currently 32% of children in South Africa do not have any PE provision at their school[7]. Around the country, private companies that provide coaches to schools to run physical education and extracurricular sports programs are flourishing, because in well-resourced schools parents demand that children are developed physically as well as mentally. Sadly, in less resourced schools the gap left by physical education cannot be so easily filled by outsourcing. In some instances, these schools are able to support physical education through corporate funding (e.g. the ‘Let’s Play’ initiative), but these opportunities are few and far between. We need change on a much larger scale if we are to improve our country’s physical activity levels. We need a skilled workforce of youth coaches that are able to fill the skills gap left by the absence of PE teacher training over the past 15 years, and we need financial resources to allow these coaches to do their work. If our education system is not able to provide our youth with the grounding they need to live, long healthy physically active lives we need to disrupt the system and find another way!

  1. Roman-Viñas, B., Chaput, J.P., Katzmarzyk, P.T., Fogelholm, M., Lambert, E.V., Maher, C., Maia, J., Olds, T., Onywera, V., Sarmiento, O.L. and Standage, M., 2016. Proportion of children meeting recommendations for 24-hour movement guidelines and associations with adiposity in a 12-country study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 13(1), p.123.

  2. Davies, J.I., and Wagner, R.G., 2019. Weighing up the costs of treating ‘lifestyle’ diseases in South Africa. Accessed online 1 August 2019: https://www.wits.ac.za/news/latest-news/opinion/2019/2019-02/weighing-up-the-costs-of-treating-lifestyle-diseases-in-south-africa.html

  3. Tremblay, M.S., Costas-Bradstreet, C., Barnes, J.D., Bartlett, B., Dampier, D., Lalonde, C., Leidl, R., Longmuir, P., McKee, M., Patton, R. and Way, R., 2018. Canada’s Physical Literacy Consensus Statement: process and outcome. BMC Public Health, 18(2), p.1034.

  4. McGrane, B., Belton, S., Powell, D. and Issartel, J., 2017. The relationship between fundamental movement skill proficiency and physical self-confidence among adolescents. Journal of sports sciences, 35(17), pp.1709-1714.

  5. De Meester, A., Stodden, D., Goodway, J., True, L., Brian, A., Ferkel, R. and Haerens, L., 2018. Identifying a motor proficiency barrier for meeting physical activity guidelines in children. Journal of science and medicine in sport, 21(1), pp.58-62.

  6. Draper, C., Lambert, E.V., et al. 2018. Healthy Active Kids South Africa 2018 Report Card. Accessed online 1 August 2019: https://www.ssisa.com/files/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/HAKSA-2018-Report-Card-FINAL.pdf

  7. Silva, D.A.S., Chaput, J.P., Katzmarzyk, P.T., Fogelholm, M., Hu, G., Maher, C., Olds, T., Onywera, V., Sarmiento, O.L., Standage, M. and Tudor-Locke, C., 2018. Physical education classes, physical activity, and sedentary behavior in children. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 50(5), pp.995-1004.

#PhysicalEducation #School #YouthSports

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