Examination PE - is it fit for purpose for 2018?

by Will Swaithes, Head of Physical Education and Achievement, Youth Sport Trust

As the legacy GCSE and A Level specification draw to a close and we face a new dawn of 9-1 measurement at GCSE and a new syllabus which will be first examined in summer 2018, are you ready for the changes and do they make sense?

Key considerations:

  • Should examination PE be a marker of elite sporting success?
  • Should examination PE verify the relative success of a fit for purpose core physical education offer?
  • Are these two factors mutually exclusive?

Examination PE - is it fit for purpose for 2018?The Department for Education (DfE) have suggested they will look at the much debated activity list for examination PE after the first exam in the summer of 2018. Whilst we appreciate that this won’t impact on the cohorts of students currently undertaking or making ‘options choices’ about these courses in the meantime, are we clear on what we as a profession would like to see from this review in the best interest of all young people?

It seems nonsensical to some PE teachers that a pupil could represent GB in a sport at the Olympics but not be considered Grade 9 (the equivalent of an A*) standard at the practical element of PE. However, the question remains about what examination PE sets out to measure? What does the equivalent look like in music, art or technology? Personally, I agree that there are a great number of credible sports and activities that warrant inclusion but fear that DfE, Ofqual and the exam boards face very tough decisions if they agree to add additional activities as that risks opening the floodgates and potentially ‘de-legitimising’ our subject. That said, at present there are clearly some main stream activities missing and others included that cater for a very narrow fraction of the population so a review is timely.

Here is a reminder of the practical activity list stipulated by DfE against all awarding organisations.

My opinion is that, excellence in a particular sport is not representative of a well rounded and exceptionally ‘physically educated’ young person. However, in order to excel in one activity you probably can’t commit the time necessary to master the breadth of PE. For example, in my experience as a secondary PE teacher, elite swimmers or gymnasts typically struggle with team invasion games. As a minority sport squash player myself who is gutted that my sport is not yet included in the Olympics despite featuring in the Commonwealths and GCSE PE activity list, I understand the perceptions of unfairness amongst students, parents and teachers who are suffering as the result of what seems like an arbitrary list of activities.

I wonder if ‘GCSE/ A Level PE’ should require scenario assessment in activities that capture health and fitness, movement competence and application to invasion, net/wall, striking and fielding style games as well as athletic/ gymnastic skill along with leadership and demonstration of character traits rather than allowing some sports performers to achieve with a narrow focus whilst others cannot, for example an equestrian and team rower vs. off road cyclist and American footballer. Meanwhile, ‘GCSE/ A Level Elite Sport’ could be added as a qualification with the same theory content and weighting (to allow for delivery in the school setting as a combined cohort with PE students) but only the requirement to excel in one area or fitness. This is more realistic and achievable with the training expectations and specialisation required by those individuals. Would that work any better? 

That said, does the subject need to recognise success beyond school or just be a catalyst to engage young people and provide a springboard for them to seek that beyond education? As suggested earlier, this needs to align to that sought from music, art, drama, technology and in fact any curriculum subject.

One thing that appears certain to me, DfE and Ofqual will rigorously enforce the following principles (outlined in their activity list) to decide which activities can be included:

  1. The range and demand of skills and techniques in the activity (i.e. the comparable rigour between activities)
  2. The application of tactics, strategies or composition in the activity (i.e. the student must apply skills to the competitive situation)
  3. The ability to develop skills over a significant period of time (i.e. the time required to learn and excel should be significant)
  4. Suitable conditions in which to perform (i.e. it must be a structured context)
  5. The level of performance can be realistically assessed by PE practitioners (i.e. teachers and moderators must be able to accurately and robustly assess)

Perhaps a bigger question is whether the theory content is fit for purpose? I don’t think this is just semantics but I am starting to wonder if I would rather see GCSE Sport Science as 100% theory and placed within the eBacc bucket. There were over 1,000 respondents to my recent Twitter survey and 86% of them certainly agree that the name is not helpful to young people, parents or school leaders.

Meanwhile, core physical education must remain the entitlement of all students, in all year groups, in order that they foster the habits of a healthy and active lifestyle with a great foundation for physical literacy and the wider benefits to character and interpersonal skills as a result of a ‘world leading PE offer’. Whilst I loved teaching and being responsible for examination PE. I am happy to say that I taught students who have gone on to become PE teachers themselves. I do not believe that the current GCSE PE specification is fit for purpose for all young people or that it reflects the outcomes sought from core curriculum PE. I am passionate that we do not let the current GCSE PE syllabus dictate what is taught through that core entitlement of all students. Perhaps this article on whether secondary PE is inspiring enough will also interest you?

If you would like to stay close to this agenda and voice your opinion when the opportunity arises, please keep an eye on @WillSwaithes on Twitter or complete this quick form.

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