When it comes to the proper delivery of physical education what problems are holding the subject back?
It’s a subject all teenagers should be regularly participating in, with long-term consequences for students’ health and happiness. And with British children often accused of being more interested in screens than sport, PE is arguably more important now than ever. But are tests, league tables and budget cuts getting in the way when it comes to secondary schools delivering PE properly?
Michael Crichton, chair of the Association for Physical Education is a passionate man when it comes to the importance of PE and he’s frank about the fact that some barriers do exist.
“Feedback from our members suggests that there can be some issues,” he confirms. “Unsurprisingly, funding is one of them and it’s really difficult for schools to combat, especially schools in vulnerable positions, desperately trying to meet various standards. If you’ve got fewer pupils taking PE option at GCSE and A-level, you might have to look at not offering it. You then lose individuals in the department and if you’re not careful your whole school PE provision is eroded.”
And far from being ‘just one of those things’, Michael argues that an impoverished PE department can often lead to an impoverished school. “One key point to recognise is that PE goes beyond just sport and it has an impact on whole school development. And for good reason, because if you’re not delivering a philosophy around well-being then you have a problem.”
Even when funding is being put into PE, how those funds are targeted can make a huge difference. Secondary PE teacher Tom Evans points out that edicts from above can have unforeseen consequences.
“Resources and facilities definitely play a big part,” he observes. “The government has pushed a fairly strong agenda around funding and focus in terms of Olympic sports. So other things, rounders – for example – have been dropped from GCSE specifications. I think there is something of a conflict between the desire to enable students to develop sporting habits for life and the type of PE curriculum that is fairly standard in lots of schools.”
Tom is also critical of a re-framing of PE that can put some students off. “Govism has pushed PE to the fringes in that the new exam specifications are very much more focused on the academic rather than practical components of PE,” he adds. “For most PE teachers, this is seen as a bit of a shame because PE was a subject in which students with gifts around physical literacy could benefit.”
Blogger Rachel Moody, who is PE subject leader at Haughton Academy, also recognises the difficulties some schools face in promoting physical activity. “I think it has become a reality for many PE departments that they are much lower in the pecking order than other subjects within the school setting,” she says. “It is not unusual to hear of PE losing time, particularly in the older year groups, to accommodate extra maths and English.”
But Rachel also points out some of the strengths of modern PE provision: “Ultimately, we can’t hide behind the barriers because there are positives too. I think social platforms have been embraced by the PE community and the quality of teaching and learning has definitely improved with increased examples of good practice available.”
Speaking of good practice, headteacher of Wright Robinson College Neville Beischer is rightly proud of his school’s achievements. With a March 2016 Ofsted judgement of ‘Outstanding in all areas’ and the Youth Sports Trust ‘Outstanding Secondary School” of the year award this February, interestingly Neville feels that far from PE being a distraction, the subject has actually been essential to the school’s transformation.
“A lot of it comes down to our ‘Teamwork Concept’ which is pivotal to success in sport, but actually transferrable across the curriculum,” he explains. “In fact, the concepts we’ve borrowed from our success in sport and PE have helped us match and surpass that achievement by the incredible academic progress and attainment of our students.”
This idea that actually good PE leads to good schools – and good news for society in general – is one that Michael Crichton is keen to pick up: “The difference PE can make when it comes to developing well-balanced responsible individuals is crucial,” he insists. “Without it a moral compass, confidence, desire to improve all these hard life skills will potentially be missed.
And when you look at the lists of skills employers are looking for from graduates, you can see that PE helps with all of them! Everything from teamwork to time management. In wider life too, PE can deliver the subtle, life-long skills that actually help to build strong communities.”
So why is PE still undervalued despite all of these benefits? William Tigbe, Clinical Lecturer in Public Health at the University of Warwick, thinks that there’s a fundamental image problem preventing it from being given the time and attention it deserves.
“There is this longstanding view that academic performance is most important and, indeed, schools are assessed based on academic performance,” he points out. “But what is not always understood is that physical activity does actually improve learning – there’s good scientific evidence that aerobic exercise in particular is beneficial for cognitive outcomes. It’s a real shame that PE is sometimes sidelined because it might mean the full academic potential of many young people will not be realised.”
And if there really is more to PE than first meets the eye, teachers seem to agree that taking a more holistic view of it is key to increasing its profile. “PE is physical, social and mental and should be seen as such,” says Tom. “It should not be reduced to being only about creating sportsmen or being ‘medal worthy.’“
The last word then, on why timetable and budgets, however constraining, should not be allowed to get in the way of our PE provision goes to Michael, who states unequivocally that “more than an examination, program or unit of work, we believe PE has massive impact on life outcomes.”
And isn’t improving the lives of our pupils why most teachers go into the profession in the first place?
It’s not always easy getting teenagers excited about PE. Here are the experts’ top tips for enthusing them:
“If students lose interest in traditional sports as they approach 16, offering something different can help – we provide yoga, gym based activities and climbing to give them chance to do something new.”
“Having a close relationship with feeder primary schools and aiding their provision can ensure students have a positive mind set about PE before they even start secondary school.”
“We used the incredible success of Team GB in the 2012 London Olympics to fuel our ‘Team Concept.’ Everyone understood how the team culture generated by Team GB charged them to achieve.”
“Mental health is an increasingly important issue facing society but PE can release tension and help with anxiety and exam stress. Show students it has a lot to offer.”
Kate Townshend splits her time between teaching and freelance journalism, thus ensuring that life is interesting but busy! She lives in Cheltenham with her indulgent husband and too many books.