Keep the Daily Mile active - an interview with Elaine Wylie
Former Stirling head teacher Elaine Wylie, the creator of the Daily Mile, on how a simple idea can go global
Elaine Wylie in London - credit Daily Mile
The idea to get primary school children out of their classroom for 15 minutes a day to run or jog is going viral.
Heralded by politicians, rolled out in schools in Scotland and now being adopted in many schools across England, it is also attracting interest from overseas, including among prominent public health figures.
The idea is Elaine Wylie’s, a former head teacher of St Ninian’s Primary School in Stirling who began the Daily Mile initiative five years ago this month.
As a primary teacher with more interest in environmental studies and history than PE, Wylie says her creation happened upon her.
The “simple and straightforward” birth of the Daily Mile happened during a 2012 conversation with an 80-year-old volunteer in the school foyer.
“In the hall, which we could see through the glass, there was an active assembly going on in an attempt to make sure we were doing the two hours of PE,” she says.
“We had three classes of children doing dance and aerobics with a motivator person on the stage. The volunteer said to me: ‘Elaine, the children in this school are really not fit.’ Just like that, you know.
“I mean, I knew, really, but I checked with the PE teacher and she said, yes, most of them are not fit and they’re exhausted by the warm-up in PE.”
Wylie points out two-thirds of children in the UK have no basic fitness, something she was unaware of at that point.
“The next day I was covering a class while the teacher was at a funeral, a P6 class. I took them outside for PE and I said, ‘let’s see, boys and girls, if you can run round the field a few times for the warm-up.’
“Most of them, in fact, could only get to the far end of the field, not even all the way round it, before they were exhausted, doubled up, had a stitch or miserable. So I got them in, had the PE lesson and the next day we had a sit down with their teacher.
“I said to them: ‘What did you think of yesterday, running around the field?’ They very much said, ‘oh it was not good, Mrs Wylie’, you know.
“One boy said, ‘Mrs Wylie, we couldnae run the length of werselves’. He was right enough, of course.”
It was decided the class would go out every day for four weeks. By the end of that period, not only had the children got fit, enjoyed the experience and wanted to continue, but it was attracting interest from elsewhere in the school.
“I got parents coming at me from other classes, and teachers saying, ‘can we not do it?’, so by the summer it was the whole school. Then, later on in the year, it was the nursery,” Wylie remembers.
The current model of the Daily Mile replicates what was tried in those early months. This means the teacher chooses the time, it takes 15 minutes, with no PE kit, in “almost all” weather and is not competitive – unless children want to compete. It must be done at least three times a week.
Wylie stresses the initiative is not PE or cross-country running but about health and wellbeing, notionally, the primary focus of Curriculum for Excellence up to age eight.
Nevertheless, other benefits began to emerge. “Behaviour across classes and focus improved. Self-esteem, confidence, and all the individuals with challenging behaviour improved,” Wylie remembers.
A study published in January by Essex University at Coppermill Primary School in Walthamstow, East London has provided the first scientific evidence of the scheme’s effectiveness in raising attainment as well as self-esteem and wellbeing.
In SATS tests, the children who had participated performed 25 per cent better than predicted in reading and maths and 17 per cent better in writing.
Wylie predicts studies by the University of Lancaster of 12 schools in Morecambe Bay, and by the universities of Edinburgh and Stirling into the impact in Scottish schools, will show similar success.
With evidence on wellbeing, behaviour, self-esteem and attainment as well as fitness and obesity, Wylie says it is “utterly remarkable” that such a simple intervention could have such an impact.
“At St Ninian’s, after two and a half years of running, we were almost half the national rates of obesity for younger children and older children. There doesn’t seem to be a downside in the Daily Mile,” she says.
Obesity, of course, is a major challenge.
“We have a nation of children who come in with up to 30 per cent of them overweight or obese in P1, and they go out nearly 50 per cent, on our watch. And of course, it’s disproportionately poor kids,” says Wylie.
The impact of the Daily Mile on mental health is the key to improvements elsewhere, she suggests.
“In fact, teachers and head teachers know health and wellbeing comes before their learning. Yet we’re presiding over children who, on our watch, get slower and fatter as they go through school. It’s very much a case of if not us, then who, if not now, then, when?
“The only way you can grab this problem is in school and nursery because that’s where the children are every day. It’s not out-of-school care. It’s not clubs or breakfast clubs. It’s in the curriculum. We have a health and wellbeing curriculum.
“I tend to rant about this, sorry. The Daily Mile is a solution, not just the message.”
However, despite the early evidence and enthusiasm within the school community, as well as the school winning a number of gold medals at national cross-country and relay events, Wylie struggled to get interest from other schools or the local authority.
“We couldn’t get anyone beyond the school community to listen. That was for a long time – nearly three years,” she says. Even after the Early Years Collaborative and Raising Attainment for All took an interest the idea “was not popular”.
“I was asked to keep it quiet. I could not get Stirling Council to listen,” she says.
Wylie cannot say why this was the case, but in January 2015 the council embraced the idea and it began to spread. In fact Stirling Council leader Johanna Boyd told Holyrood it was “Stirling’s Daily Mile”.
What advice, then, would Wylie give any other teacher with an innovative idea?
“We come into teaching to make things better for children. If you’re convinced that you have something that will make children’s lives better then you have to not give up,” she says.
The Daily Mile is a perfect example. “Once it got out, you’ve no idea,” says Wylie. “There are 550 schools in Holland doing the Daily Mile. It’s in 20 countries. It’s in the USA. We’re going over there later in the year. At a very conservative estimate, there are half a million children a day doing it, getting out of breath and healthy.”
And is she running a mile every day herself? “Actually, I do do a lot of walking, although I’m needing a new hip!”
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