x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Empty mandate on physical education

Children need to be taught to stay active. In the country¿s state school system, youngsters are getting the wrong message.

Before Xbox and PlayStation, there were swing-sets and skateboards. Exercise - chasing balls or huffing after each other on the playground - was an unavoidable part of growing up.

These days the opposite seems to be true. Adult onset diabetes is a national epidemic in the UAE, but the trend towards sedentary living starts early. As the federal Ministry of Health estimates, over a third of the country's school-aged population is overweight; nearly 15 per cent are obese.

Children need to be taught to stay active, yet in the country's evolving state school system, youngsters are often getting the wrong message.

As The National reported yesterday, a lack of physical education professionals is causing an educational and health crisis. As many as 100 schools in Dubai and the Northern Emirates employ no physical education instructors at all. If children are not receiving an exercise ethic at home (and many are not), the schools should be the healthy last resort.

Educators have the right instinct: last year, the government called for an increase in the amount of time children spend in PE classes, from once a week to three times. The trouble comes when trying to implement the overhaul. School administrators cannot find anyone to teach the classes, meaning curriculum changes are often ignored.

A federal solution is needed. The first step in reversing this unhealthy trend is to recruit more teachers, and soon. To do that, schools will need to pay teachers adequate wages and widen their recruitment net. Physical education teachers in the UAE have been traditionally recruited from Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia, but competition and more attractive options in their home countries is making it difficult to lure them here.

In the longer term, the UAE would benefit from dedicated degree programmes in physical education. Officials at UAE University, which closed down the country's only accredited sport programme more than a decade ago, is exploring options to reinstate it. They will likely need federal help to speed the process.

The most challenging change, however, will be the most difficult to implement. Young people need active role models, from Emirati footballers to national tennis stars. Until children have healthy adults to look up to, changing attitudes on fitness may prove impossible.