Children return to PE with low levels of physical fitness

New research released today by children’s charity the Youth Sport Trust has recorded teacher’s accounts of what a return to PE and sport in schools across the UK looks like following six months of closures.

The charity heard how logistical issues and cautiousness among teachers around delivery guidelines has led to some schools teaching less or even no PE at all this term.

In secondary schools over a fifth are offering less timetabled PE than before COVID. Around half of all schools will be delivering less extracurricular sport in the Autumn term and, additionally, around four in 10 will offer none. 

PE teachers and senior school leaders have told the Youth Sport Trust how life for children in schools is now more sedentary, with restrictions on their movement and some children not even moving between lessons. This has resulted in almost three quarters of teachers reporting children returning with low levels of physical fitness - one teacher commented that children were struggling to complete short bursts of activity without becoming out of breath.  

The charity’s findings revealed: 

  • While most teachers will deliver the same as pre-COVID, some teachers will deliver less or even no curriculum PE this term: 17% of Key Stage 2 will deliver less or no curriculum PE, 22% at Key Stage 3, and 26% at Key Stage 4 
  • 73% of teachers reported children returning with low levels of physical fitness 
  • 49% have noticed mental wellbeing issues in pupils including anxiety and fear 
  • 50% of all teachers surveyed reported a cautiousness about interpreting the guidelines correctly  
  • 65% of all teachers surveyed said that being able to follow delivery guidance due to logistical issues including cleaning equipment, social distancing, having to stay in class bubbles or staggered break/lunch times was an issue or barrier to delivering PE 
  • 52% of teachers have noticed educational gaps as children return 

Ali Oliver, Chief Executive of the Youth Sport Trust, said:  

What we have feared most is becoming a reality, children’s lives have been disrupted by the pandemic and now their usual play and activity habits continue to be inhibited. As they return to school, we are seeing all sorts of issues present themselves from anxiety and depression to low physical fitness and self-confidence. 

Many schools have been working really creatively to ensure young people access daily physical activity, weekly Physical Education and after-school sport. However, our insight reveals that too many schools are struggling with the confidence to resume or are prioritising other subjects – with the challenge greatest in secondary schools, where over a fifth are offering less PE than before COVID.   

"The wellbeing of our children must be a national priority right now. If we want to help children ‘catch up’ in the classroom we need to ensure they are active every day and are learning important life skills through PE that they can draw on to help them cope in the classroom and beyond.   

"We have spent the last six months adapting as a charity and working with partners to create free support to give teachers not only confidence but importantly practical tips and ideas that have been successfully applied in other schools. We want to play our part in helping the country recover."

The charity has created a range of free guidance and support for schools around a return to delivering safe, inclusive and fun school sport, physical activity and PE. The resources are available to view and download at . The full research report is available to download from the pink panel on this page.


Research methodology 

Total sample size was 252. Respondents were PE leads and senior school leaders from a mix of schools covering foundation to KS4. Fieldwork was undertaken between 9th and 14th September 2020. The survey was carried out online. 

Published on 24 September 2020