Elaine Wyllie

Former headteacher and founder of The Daily Mile

Elaine Wyllie

Mark Gould talks to the former headteacher whose initiative to improve her pupils’ fitness in the fresh air is now benefitting millions of children across the world

It wasn’t PE, it wasn’t sport – we had stumbled upon something special.’ So says Elaine Wyllie, the fabulously enthusiastic and energetic woman who has sparked a worldwide campaign to get children more active and improve their physical and mental health.

As headteacher at a primary school in Fife, Elaine was shocked when a school volunteer told her that her children were unfit. ‘I asked the PE teacher, who said “yes the  fit ones are fit but the vast majority are exhausted by the warm up for PE”.’

Further proof emerged when Wyllie took a year-five class for a run in a nearby field. ‘The running club were fine but the other 25 children were exhausted by the far end of the field, doubled up, out of breath and moaning.’

And so the Daily Mile, a fiendishly simple idea for getting children out in a playground or open space for 15 minutes of running, jogging and walking in the fresh air day was born. From that starting point in February 2012 at St Ninian’s Primary School some 2.3 million children in the UK and 78 countries across the world are now doing a  Daily Mile three times a week. 

And Wyllie emphasises that it is totally inclusive: ‘If you are in a wheelchair you are out on the Daily Mile as well. Special needs pupils in a mainstream school? No bother. It’s really taken off in special needs settings, for children with an exo-skeleton right the way through to a walker, or self-propelling in a chair – they are all outdoors with their friends.’

Wyllie says the beauty of the scheme is its simplicity. ‘It’s all about social physical activity, with children running or jogging at their own pace. It works for all children and can be sustained, there are no gimmicks, no cost, no equipment, no staff training, you don’t need an eight-lane running track. Children run or walk in trainers and their school clothes so there is no time spent changing. They go out in all weathers and, once they got over the worst of  being exhausted, mental health benefits kicked in: cheery, glowing, sparkly eyes coming in from the outdoors and fresh air.’

She says there are the added benefits of improved mental health, less anxiety, and improved readiness to learn. ‘Relationships improve, the language of friendship changes, they can have side-by-side conversations with their teacher in a safe space. When Education Scotland came to see it they said there are no failures here, all these children are succeeding at their own Daily Mile. They said “Look at these 11-year-old girls, you never see them running”.’

Attracting international attention

The school already had a good athletics team but Wyllie says a year after the Daily Mile started ‘we just won everything – all the athletics stuff. And then we started winning nationally at road relay and cross country’.

Word about St Ninian’s got round.  Luckily some parents were doctors who invited the chief medical officer for Scotland to see for herself. ‘She just loved it,’ Wyllie says.

After speaking at a conference in Glasgow, BBC Scotland got interested and ran a news piece on the scheme. In 2019 Wyllie won the Teacher of the Year award at the Pride of Britain celebration and was presented with an MBE by the Duke of Cambridge.

The Daily Mile has a billionaire backer in the shape of Sir Jim Radcliffe, the boss of the Ineos chemicals  group, which provides worldwide promotion, expert staff, and office space in its Knightsbridge headquarters - right next door to Harrods. Again, parents who worked at an Ineos factory near the school helped attract the attention of Sir Jim.

The Ineos connection attracted a big name ambassador  in the shape of Eliud Kipchoge, the fastest marathon runner on earth. Mo Farah, tennis ace Andy Murray and former UK Olympic hurdler Colin Jackson are also signed up.

‘Ineos has a global reach – there are 11,000-plus schools doing it across the word. The United Arab Emirates has 45 schools doing it and the fitness of their girls went up 19% in seven weeks. None of that would matter if it was not sustainable, if it was a flash in the pan, but it lasts,’ Wyllie says.

Research is ongoing but there is emerging evidence that sustained Daily Miles reduce the incidence of dyspraxia, and improve bone density. ‘We are nine years into a 15-year longitudinal study of physical literacy led by Dr Lynda Hine from the University of Chester. When researchers started to get returns from Scottish primary schools that were reversing the trend they found it was the schools doing the Daily Mile.’ 

Proven positive outcomes

Wyllie says feedback from physiotherapists has been positive and she feels the profession should promote the scheme. ‘I got a phone call from a physio who had been to a PE conference and really liked the Daily Mile. Her feeling was that if you are doing the  Daily Mile it will help so much.’ 

Some teachers say they are already too busy coping with the existing workload and the Daily Mile takes time out of the curriculum. Wyllie responds: ‘It’s one and a quarter hours per week. The benefits are huge. What else have we got? Some teachers say they can’t fit it in but surveys show 62% of parents put health and wellbeing above literacy and numeracy. If children are healthy and happy they are ready to learn.’

She points sceptics to the research. A study by the Universities of Stirling and Edinburgh* concluded that The Daily Mile is an ‘effective intervention’ and has measurable positive health outcomes on fitness and body composition of primary school children. And Swansea University ** says The Daily Mile can increase children’s fitness by 9% and has a positive impact on attitudes to physical activity, increased feelings of happiness, improvements in group work and social interactions with classmates.

Jennifer Harris, the lead senior physiotherapist in paediatric MSK and orthopaedics at Chesterfield Royal Hospitals Foundation Trust, has analysed the Daily Mile and  is a fan. 

Physios play an important role

‘Being simple and free to implement, The Daily Mile has proven to be really popular in schools across the UK and can  be delivered on a regular basis to large groups of children,’ she says. ‘When actively involved in the programme, The Daily Mile has potential to build and strengthen relationships with peers, teaching staff and the  wider community, facilitating factors associated with resilience and sustained activity in youth.’ 

Harris says schools proposing to set up a Daily Mile should consider personalised goal setting, local leadership and support, preparation of outdoor space and opportunities for children to work together and reflect on their experience.

‘Physiotherapists working with children and young people play an important role in the promotion of physical activity. A broad awareness of innovative opportunities to be active and best practice in delivery can all build toward positive impact on public health,’ Harris says. ‘Thanks Elaine, for all your hard work in making things better for the next generation.’ 

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