BLOG: Secondary PE - time to step up and be counted?

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

If we don’t act now, in a coordinated and collaborative bid to save PE then I fear it may be lost for good! I didn’t always love PE as a kid. But, I was pretty good at some sports, performed outside of school and gained the confidence and desire to continue trying out new activities and I am therefore feeling the physical, social and emotional benefits. Doesn’t everyone deserve that?

Although I did my best to deliver meaningful and relevant PE in my 13 years of teaching, I know I didn’t nail it for all. At a time when school outcome measures rule above everything else and young people’s health and wellbeing are in decline, surely it is time for significant change across the board? If young people’s interests, attitudes and motivations, as well as society’s needs from education have changed, why does the typical PE diet and general perception of what it delivers still look the same as what I experienced over 20 years ago? Where we see great practice, it is so much more than improving technical competence in sports but, as a profession, I fear we are only as good as our weakest link. In saying that, are we confident that the physical education delivered to all students in all schools is of the same high quality and delivering against the same meaningful outcomes? I mean the outcomes that reach far beyond that of the GCSE PE syllabus and are of real benefit to all young people in establishing healthy living behaviours.

Our research demonstrates what is happening right now is not working, so what is the way forward?

Secondary PE - time to step up and be counted? researchPE is being squeezed out of the timetable in secondary schools. 38% of English secondary schools have cut timetabled PE time for 14-16-years-olds since 2012, while almost one in four (24%) have done so in the last academic year. And those figures don’t take account of the significant intervention for core subjects that is taking place within timetabled PE lessons for many of the young people who need quality and relevant physical education time the most! The findings are based on responses from 487 different secondary schools in England.

The research shows that:

  • Timetabled PE time is decreasing, and the cuts get bigger as students get older
  • Exam pressure, additional curriculum time for other subjects and staffing cuts are among the reasons cited for reductions
  • The real extent of the problem is far worse than that statistic suggests: In addition to the above reduction, students are being taken out of timetabled PE for extra tuition in other subjects and it is suggested these are the very same young people who need that physical activity time the most
  • PE teachers overwhelming feel the subject needs to be more valued amongst school leaders, parents, wider stakeholders and importantly young people

This research comes as teachers warn that the importance of physical activity in schools is being undervalued, with the success of secondary school PE departments assessed on GCSE results and trophies achieved by a minority, rather than their impact improving the health and wellbeing of students across the whole school.

In my opinion, the change needed must be led by the PE teaching profession and those embedded within teacher education. We can draw on some exceptional examples of 21st century PE practice to ensure the bar is raised nationally and a higher standard is set for all young people to experience through core curriculum PE. This means more explicit and valued outcomes from study are achieved in all settings. There are plenty of pockets of great practice but ‘world leading provision’ needs to become the norm and better understood by all - teachers, school leaders, parents, Ofsted inspectors, policy makers and most crucially young people. Learning and personal development needs from our subject must become overtly visible, meaningfully measured and looked for by all stakeholders. 56% of nearly 800 people believe the most important of the four current national curriculum aims is “lead healthy active lives”. And recent YouGov research shows than more than 80% of the public think it is important or very important to teach PE in secondary schools.

We at the Youth Sport Trust are clear that without refreshed focus at both a policy and practice level, we risk failing a generation who will be denied the benefits of a good quality physical education. There is an obvious disconnect where cuts to PE are happening at a time when levels of physical activity among young people are declining, obesity and mental health difficulties are on the rise and yet the research backed case for wellbeing as the barrier to student achievement couldn’t be stronger.

In addition to this, a staggering 90% of employers, teachers and young people say that essential life skills are as or more important than academic qualifications (Sir Peter Lampl, Sutton Trust). By essential life skills we mean confidence, articulacy, social skills and team work. Meanwhile, the subject of character and soft skills is firmly on the political agenda (Roy Blatchford, National Education Trust writing for Schools Improvement).

For me, this is where world-leading PE really can make a difference for all, if given clarity of focus and sufficient time and resources to deliver against. I think we need to see an overhaul of the PE curriculum to place a much greater emphasis on using sport and physical activity to enhance young people’s confidence, emotional wellbeing and life skills in a far more overt and intentional way.

Join our PE CatalYSTs and create change

The All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Child created a report into PE over a year ago which called for many changes. One year on, what has? Why not join our army of PE CatalYSTs to access examples of exceptional practice or sign up for workshop 1 at our national conference on 28 February to explore some of these ideas in person around improving wellbeing through physical education: PE’s vital place in a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’.

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