What are the barriers stopping kids in alternative provision from being active?

As the Youth Sport Trust joins with Leeds Beckett University in releasing first of its kind research, Vicci Wells explores the barriers young people in alternative provision face to getting active.

“In mainstream, I used to hate being removed from PE. I was only at the school a few weeks and I never got to do it – not once. It sucks! If you don’t have the right kit, you couldn’t do it. We always had to wear a certain kit – it was never what we wanted to wear or what we felt comfortable wearing. And like, if your kit doesn’t fit you or your shoes are ripped, like everyone notices and then you get bullied. I used to hate being bullied in PE, it made me feel worthless!”

It was this quote from a young person which stuck with me on reading the responses to new research launched today, exploring the role and value of PE in alternative provision. For this young person, PE was never a subject they could embrace and enjoy as they were denied the opportunity. It was a hard read. Delving further into their story, their experiences clearly highlight the barriers facing many young people across the country - particularly amid a cost-of living crisis where there is fear of judgement around worn shoes, kit that has been outgrown, and then to avoid that judgement, negative behaviours occurring.

I have been privileged to work alongside several leaders, staff and young people attending alternative provision settings across the country over the last few months. Colleagues from Leeds Beckett University, who are behind the report released today, have worked tirelessly to map the provision of physical education and sport in alternative provision schools. Importantly, they have foregrounded the voice of young people and key stakeholders like teachers to gain valuable insights.

The data on the number of young people in alternative provision settings

Alternative provision includes settings such as pupil referral units (PRUs), alternative provision academies, free schools, and hospital schools. Department for Education data estimates there are at least 35,600 pupils educated across as least 761 alternative provision settings in England. Additionally, there are 11,684 pupils enrolled in PRUs, and a further 11,100 have a dual registration meaning they are registered at another school. Within these schools there are increasing numbers of children and young people with mental health needs, and there is a growing recognition that pupils’ mental health and wellbeing influence their educational attainment. Almost half of pupils are eligible for free school meals and 81% of pupils are on the SEND register (which according to the Centre for Social Justice is almost six times higher than in mainstream schools). Importantly, sport and physical activity – provided through the physical education curriculum in alternative provision schools – may offer a viable means to reengage disaffected youth in learning and development. However, little is known about what physical education in alternative provision does and/or should involve, how it is experienced by pupils, how staff are trained to teach it, or how well the subject is resourced.

The barriers young people in these settings face to getting active

Its why the aims of the research released today are so important. It highlights the significant barriers young people in alternative provision face to getting active. This includes the physical space within school, and available equipment to play, along with a lack of teacher training and a looming recruitment crisis. The findings are stark and reveal:

  • More than half of alternative provision schools involved in the research do not have an indoor space available for the delivery of physical education.
  • Similarly, just 43% reported having access to a dedicated outdoor space (e.g., AstroTurf, sports pitches, or multi-use games area [MUGA]).
  • Over 60% of settings rated their equipment as average, poor or very poor. Schools are trying to work creatively with the limited resource they have, but due to lack of investment do not have the funding to ensure better quality equipment to teach physical education.

Alternative provision schools were quoted as ‘having a basketball team, but no basketball hoop to play so instead relied on using a bin’. Significant numbers of young people across the country have no space indoors or outdoors, to play or to move. Let’s pause on that for a moment. Some of our most underserved young people in the sector do not have the space or facility to be active, to play and to move. We know unhealthy, unhappy children don’t learn - so where is there the opportunity to improve life chances, and create healthier outcomes?

A lack of policy protecting play spaces

Staggeringly, there is no requirement at a policy level for new, alternative provision settings being created to provide spaces for safe play. Surely these are some of the young people that would benefit the most from the fun, physical and emotional wellbeing benefits that being active can provide. Crucially, physical education and sport offer a means of engaging young people in positive youth development, enhancing mental wellbeing and aiding the transfer back to mainstream schooling. For instance, young people who participate in organised sport and physical activity have better health related quality of life and mental health compared to non-participating peers.

No teacher training

Interestingly, only 57% of schools suggested physical education was taught by a specialist physical education teacher. Practitioners queried the appropriateness of their own (and others) knowledge and skills to teach physical education. This tied to the appropriateness of initial teacher education but also what was termed a ‘recruitment crisis’ in alternative provision generally and physical education specifically. It is hard to recruit staff with the expertise to deliver in alternative provision schools.

“There needs to be some training for non-specialists in PE because it would never make economic sense for us to have a PE specialist, but some of our staff have got a real interest in PE and sport and want it to be offered [to young people], so some training for them would
be useful.”

Katie, hospital school

There are also instances when non-physical education specialists were teaching physical education. Often, this was a person who had an interest in and participated in sport outside of work. Given this lack of expertise, some practitioners emphasised the importance of appropriate continued professional development opportunities to upskill them.

The solution

In alternative provision settings across the country there is some fantastic work being done and it is important this is recognised. Many schools are delivering PE and school sport despite the challenges. But there are also vast inconsistencies in practice and performance and several cold spots, where pupils have a poor-to-zero chance of receiving a quality physical education and school sport offer.

This new report provides some clear recommendations to ensure we can all play our part in ensuring there are no children and young people faced with no space to move or play, poor equipment, or insufficiently trained staff while in education settings. The recent SEND and Alternative Green Paper is going some way to highlight some of these, and we have included our recommendations into the consultation. One of our asks makes reference at a policy and legislation level, to not creating schools or identifying buildings that have no space to play.

At an intrapersonal level there is a desire for the sector to work together and look at teacher confidence and competence, sharing resources and opportunities to connect and share practice. Let’s reflect on our own practice to ensure that if there are behavioural challenges in school, it isn’t sport or PE that is denied, and to treat it in the same value as other curriculum subjects.

Reflecting on the cost-of-living crisis, it is important meaningful adjustments are made to ensure maximum participation. Another story of one young person that will stay with me is that of an 11-year-old male pupil, who was forever making excuses not to get changed for PE. He would do PE but only in his uniform… And the reason? He was wearing pyjamas under his uniform for fear that if he left them at home they wouldn’t be there when he got back. Getting changed would highlight this vulnerability. Similar stories can be seen by young people choosing to wear coats for fear of them being stolen in the changing rooms whilst they are on the field playing sport, and also lack of facilities to wash clothing when home when it is sweaty. And this was happening before the 2022 cost-of-living crisis for pupils.

My take home message

Quite simply, this is not good enough. The Youth Sport Trust is determined to level up opportunities, without exception for young people that need it most. All children and young people deserve to have a positive experience in school and through play, PE and sport, whether that be through mainstream, specialist or alternative education. We passionately believe there needs to be an increased role and value for PE and sport to ensure children are physically and mentally well to tackle the crisis of inactivity and poor wellbeing in young people, as well as be a vehicle to foster a sense of belonging, value, acceptance and develop life skills. This must be achieved through a joined-up approach across us all and through government departments, education sector, and sports organisations.

Join us and become a Changemaker, if you are a business who can help tackle the problem please get in touch, if you are a policy maker – read our report.

Published on 3 November 2022