I hated PE at school. It was the one subject at which I was truly rubbish. I probably wasn’t that rubbish – I could catch a ball, as long as I knew which direction it was coming from, and one joyful year in primary school I actually got a B+ for PE in my end of year report, to put alongside the smug row of As that I’d got for everything else. But I was bad enough for PE to be something I dreaded, week after week. I read a blog post this week about the anxiety that many students experience in Maths, and could recognise a lot of it. Fortunately, my main Maths teacher at school was the lovely Mr Wilson, who was just about the least anxiety-inducing individual on the planet and got me safely through GCSE to the point where I would never need to do Proper Maths ever again. But PE: no. It wasn’t exercise that was the problem. It was the rules; it was the picking of teams; it was being shouted at for my incompetence by people who hadn’t wanted me on their team and whose team I didn’t want to be on anyway. It was a horror.
All of this brings me to Mr Sugden, the subject of this week’s Teacher Feature. Mr Sugden is the PE teacher in Barry Hines’ 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave, and was immortalised by Brian Glover in the 1969 film Kes. (Fun fact: Glover was a PE teacher himself before he became an actor, and worked with Barry Hines at Longcar Central School in Barnsley). Mr Sugden is the proxy for every hated PE teacher who has ever existed. He stands in for all those petty tyrants who let the best students pick the teams while the weaklings and fat kids shivered miserably on the sidelines; all those sticklers for the rules who forced people to wear discarded kit from Lost Property; all those wannabe FA Cup-winners who thrived on taunting the kids who couldn’t move quickly enough. If Sugden was your PE teacher, your whole week would pivot around that hated lesson. You’d barely sleep the night before, and then you’d wake, gritty-eyed, and drag yourself off to school hoping against hope that something would happen to mean the lesson was cancelled, like a fire drill maybe, or a smallish meteorite landing on the school.
Sugden’s lesson isn’t really a lesson at all, because it’s all about him. He’s there in his spotless kit, his socks held up with tape, his boots ‘polished as black and shiny as the bombs used by assassins in comic strips’, his laces tied meticulously. He captains one of the teams and gets first pick of the best players. His team is Manchester United: he is Bobby Charlton. He’s also the commentator, and the ref. He threatens and domineers and takes it all far too seriously. ‘Are you tryin’ to tell me about football?’ he challenges one pupil who dares to question him. He’s let down by his goalie – the reluctant Billy, in too-big borrowed shorts – and spitefully throws the ball at him, knocking him over into the mud. So determined is he to win that he makes the boys play on after the bell, missing their lunches, until the winning goal is scored. Except that it’s his opponents who win, the ball allowed in by Billy.
Sugden definitely gets his revenge. In the changing rooms after the game, he forces Billy into the shower, barring the exit and spraying him first with hot water, then cold. The other boys are uncomfortable. They plead with Sugden to let him go. It’s the kind of behaviour for which Sugden would nowadays, quite rightly, be sacked. Watching the film now, he’s a ridiculous figure. But he’s dangerous, too: the kind of sadist who, in real life, made the school careers of countless children an utter misery.
School PE has changed enormously since the days of Mr Sugden. It needed to. PE teachers are aware of the vital role they play in safeguarding, building confidence and tackling issues of self-image, and in emphasising the importance of exercise as well as competitive sport. Nowadays, too, there are brilliant grassroots initiatives to get people exercising. I am a massive fan of both Couch to 5k and parkrun: parkrun always has a volunteer tailwalker so that nobody ever needs to be last, and celebrates the fact that in the years since its launch, the average time that participants take to complete their 5k has actually increased. Yet on the women’s running groups I follow on Facebook, there are regular posts from people who, for years, have seen themselves as rubbish at sport, who struggle to exercise in public, and for whom putting on a pair of trainers will always bring back memories of shame and failure. The real-life Mr Sugdens – and the Mrs Sugdens, and Miss Sugdens – did a lot of damage.