BLOG: What is the most important piece of exam analysis for PE departments?

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

Mid-august is the time to celebrate, support students who may be disappointed and analyse results to unpick how to best enable achievement going forwards. I remember asking searching questions about whether the course and exam board chosen best met the needs of students and what could be done to squeeze more value added out of all GCSE and A level outcomes, both as a secondary school PE department and also as a senior leader.

However, is there a more fundamental question we should be asking? Whilst we don’t agree with it, as reported by the BBC, “there has been a clear shift away from the arts, modern languages and a handful of social sciences at both GCSE and A level” yet, rightly so, core physical education remains a subject that every student is entitled to throughout their schooling. Would the focus of PE departments on protecting that valuable curriculum time by transforming its focus and demonstrating its valuable contribution to the achievement and life chances of all students be time better spent rather than agonising over the results of less than 1 in 8 Year elevens? The reformed GCSE PE has seen a massive drop of nearly 30% of total entries compared to the 2017 figures, although we need to wait until later in the autumn to find out total numbers who earned vocational qualifications in Sport as that is still a very popular option.

When it comes to GCSE analysis, a helpful reference point is the spread of marks nationally as well as comparisons to other subjects within the school, especially as we are in our first year of 9-1 measurement and hence it is harder to compare with historical data. The provisional data table published by JCQ (see page 116 for just reformed specification PE) should be of use to you, you may also want to look at this twitter conversation thread for more comparisons and an interesting dialogue. Data tables that only include the reformed GCSE in PE show a total of 86,259 candidates across the UK which suggests nearly 10,000 are following legacy specifications or accessing from abroad, so presumably most will be in International and private schools. The tables also demonstrate that girls outperformed boys. Here is a quick overview of percentage scoring in each grade boundary over the past 25 years, thanks to bstubbs Student Performance Analysis.

For A level, whilst a number of press outlets like The Times have reported “More A Levels in PE than French as pupils drop European languages”, we have also seen a decline of 50% in total numbers over the past 10 years. Again, it is important to remember the growth of vocational courses in Sport over that period to add to this figure, although these numbers are not available until later in the autumn. It is also helpful to compare against national averages for the different grades A*-U, you can do this by using page of 5 of this JCQ publication.

Skills developed through Level 2 and 3 qualifications in PE and Sport are varied and provide great access opportunities not only to further and higher education study and a very buoyant and exciting sports sector of potential career pathways but also to the wider education and employment market. The breadth of applied study including health and fitness awareness, physiology, psychology, socio-cultural and historical issues as well as performance analysis and practical performance is rich with learning potential despite the much discussed disapointment of a reduced percentage contribution from coursework and limited activity list.

That said, at Youth Sport Trust, we recognise a World Leading Physical Education offer has a far more pivotal role in supporting all young people to be healthy and well in order to unlock potential and wider academic attainment. Consequently, we encourage secondary school PE departments to spend more time analysing the impact they are having on every students’ healthy active lifestyle habits, life skill development, and the knock-on effect of that on attendance, behaviour and exam performance (to include Progress 8). Working with a group of our Ambassador Schools, we have developed a tool to help draw out those correlations producing powerful tables and graphs that demonstrate the importance. With a +0.33 average Progress 8 score versus -0.27, between those demonstrating the most and least healthy active lifestyle habits respectively, it is clear how much could be achieved by putting a bigger emphasis on that intervention.

Here is a snapshot of what we found with a dataset of just 678 students, with Level 1 representing criteria for those students displaying the most healthy active lifestyle habits and Level 4 the least. The graph below shows a positive correlation between healthy and active lifestyles and overall progress, as measured by Progress 8 and based on 2017 results. We look forward to further developing this evidence base in the 2018/19 academic year.

Concentrating on the provision and outcomes of core Physical Education has far wider reaching benefits than the few who choose examination PE or Sport! To find out more about our Healthy Active Lifestyle report, read about it in our autumn INSPIRE publication or contact

Why not also access Get Exam Fit to help students build confidence, manage their physical and emotional wellbeing and achieve their potential in school exams?

“Our Get Exam Fit programme aims to build confidence and help alleviate the overwhelming stress young people face in preparing for exams. Our incredible Athlete Mentors go in to schools and support Year 10 and Year 11 students throughout the year leading up to their GCSEs, by sharing their experiences and advice with dealing with stress and high pressure situations in the sporting world.

Findings from a recent pilot project we ran in Northamptonshire has had unprecedented success in helping young people build strategies to managing stress and anxiety for exams and for life. Not only did it have a direct impact on wellbeing but young people actually achieved more in their GCSE’s as a result! It is a great example of how we are working to improve the health and wellbeing of young people and take a preventative approach to young peoples’ emotional and physical wellbeing issues.” (Source -

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