Resilient school leaders back their belief in PE and school sport

by Ali Oliver, Chief Executive

Resilient school leaders back their belief in PE and school sportThere is much said and written about the important role that PE, sport and physical activity can have on building resilience in young people. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan was quoted recently in referencing how “School sport and team games don’t just help children stay healthy, they help build character, resilience and grit – the very traits we need young people to develop.” A statement I would wholeheartedly agree with. Much of the work of the Youth Sport Trust is focused on how PE, sport and physical activity boosts not only resilience but other positive character traits, along with wider academic achievement.

Whilst our focus and energy has to be on young people we must not neglect the need for school leaders to show resilience through their commitment to PE and sport in an ever changing and challenging environment of education reform. With primary schools exercised by changes to assessment and considering their academisation options and secondary schools facing high expectations over GCSE A-C performance, Ofsted, Progress 8 and Attainment 8 accountability measures, there is plenty to occupy any headteachers mind and certainly enough to challenge their own resilience.

These multiple pressures could lead school leaders to question, and potentially reduce, time allocated to PE and after-school sport in favour of other subjects where the pressure for success is perceived to be so great. They may feel a need to carve out additional time for revision lessons or top up classes to meet the demands that ultimately represent the success of their pupils and the wider school.

But to neglect the important role and contribution that PE, sport and physical activity can have in supporting schools to achieve against these measures would be a major oversight. Removing PE, sport and physical activity opportunities from a child’s education can have a detrimental impact on their development. Evidence shows that when high quality PE and sport is delivered in schools it aids and enhances the learning of pupils across all subjects, can improve school ethos and pupils’ sense of belonging, and raises aspirations for young people to achieve their personal best.

In 2012 a report in the Journal of Sport Sciences stated that a ‘physically active lifestyle during childhood is positively associated with brain and cognitive health. Children who are more aerobically fit have improved brain function, higher academic achievement scores and superior cognitive performance than less fit children’. Similarly, in 2013 the Journal of Physical Activity and Health reported that ‘Engagement in regular physical activity is recognised to contribute a range of positive outcomes, specifically; physical and mental health, social wellbeing, cognitive and academic performance.’

We work with schools across the country that share our view that high quality PE and sport helps improve a young person’s wellbeing, leadership and achievement. These schools are making physical activity a priority because they understand the difference it can make across the school. But even the most hardened believer needs to be resilient at a time when schools are facing such significant pressures to succeed.

Schools that believe that by putting PEand sport at the heart of their work they will help drive standards, help narrow the achievement gap and enable all young people to become better learners need to stand firm and be resolute when faced with the challenging education climate we are in.

For those schools considering reducing levels of PE and sport I would question what evidence there is to support this decision? If a headteacher is thinking of cutting back on the subject due to a lack of engagement or enthusiasm of students it is likely this is down to the way the subject is being delivered. We know that high quality PE engages, inspires and develops important personal learning and thinking skills. We also know that PE that is not high quality fails to achieve this.

The Youth Sport Trust has a strong track record of helping schools redesign their curriculum, making it more young person centred and in doing so significantly increasing student engagement and enjoyment. We know all too well that pupil progress is being tracked more than ever and this presents an opportunity to really understand whether engagement in high quality PE, sport and physical activity is actually having a broader positive impact.

We know for example that behaviour and attendance are meticulously tracked by schools. From this information it should be a relatively simple task to identify whether those students that are regularly attending lessons and are attentive in class are also taking part in regular PE and school sport opportunities. From this analysis it is possible to generate an indication of the level of impact that could be felt within a school by reducing activity levels.

Our work is built on a foundation of partnership working and we cannot campaign on this important issue alone.  In order to help headteachers and school leaders show resilience through their commitment to PE and sport, the Youth Sport Trust is galvanising networks of professionals who are advocates in schools because of the impact the subject has had on standards in their own schools.

We are working with over 100 Headteacher Ambassadors who understand the importance of PE, sport and physical activity and encourage them to champion the cause at every opportunity. They advocate locally and nationally with school leaders and policy makers and advise the Youth Sport Trust on the challenges facing schools to help us ensure that our work remains sector leading and worthwhile to the schools we support.

We are also working with a group of innovative PE practitioners to share good practice for use in their secondary core PE classes. This group, called PE CatalYSTs, has been formed to help turn the tide against the potential marginalisation of the subject and the pressures placed upon it by recent educational reforms.

We will continue to take every opportunity to encourage young people to be more physically active and build the creativity, aspirations, resilience and empathy they need to succeed in life. This is a call to action to all school leaders to be resilient and stay true to the fundamentals of education and the curriculum and enrichment programmes you believe make the greatest impact on young people’s health, happiness and success.