Physical Education is arguably one of the most important subjects on the curriculum in the twenty first century.

“In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection. —Plato”

If we could identify an education subject that could enhance our students’ life chances and play a large part in reducing the risk of major illness, such as: heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, by up to 50% and lower the risk of early death by up to 30% – should this not be viewed as a school core curriculum subject with protected time, in line with all other core subjects? https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/exercise-health-benefits/

‘If physical activity were a drug, we’d talk about it as a miracle cure’

Prof. Dame Sally Davies (Former Chief Medical Officer for England)

A meta-analysis of 42 worldwide studies, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, has concluded that physical activity during academic lessons improves students’ attainment. https://ie-today.co.uk/Article/physical-activity-improves-attainment-ucl-study-finds/. This research is supported by cognitive and neural scientists and in various publications such as the ground-breaking book ‘Spark’, by John. J. Ratey (‘Spark’, 2008).

And yet, Physical Education, as a subject, has been marginalised in most schools as the growing pressure for academic achievement has led to a reduction in practical Physical Education curriculum time. The drivers of this change are easily identified as the need to measure a school’s success is now defined simply in terms of data and percentage of grades achieved across a narrow band of subjects. In my opinion this is a very limited way in which to measure the value of, what should be, an inspiring process of learning, understanding and empowerment.

Physical Education’s response to the high status given to examination subjects and associated league tables has been to jump onto the academic bandwagon with GCSE, A Level and Vocational examination programmes that now proliferate in most schools. Understandable, and not, I would argue, without value, but somehow the Physical part of Physical Education, surely its core purpose and value, has been sacrificed by many institutions who devote more time to examination PE than to Practical Activity PE.

Another partial corruption, and on the surface not an obvious one, has been to move towards a pure Sports Programme, as opposed to a broad and balanced Physical Education programme. Once again, the need to specialise and focus on measurable sports results, albeit for the few who make the team, has become a valued measure to justify the investment in sports facilities and promote schools’ success. In his 2019 book RANGE, David Epstein argues strongly for why a broad sporting foundation is important in ultimately developing excellence at senior level and gives examples of generalist (late specialists) including Federer, British Athletics (slow bakers), 2014 German World Cup winners and many others along with many business related examples to support his argument. Whether one agrees with Epstein or not – The Sports /Physical Education facilities represent the most expensive classroom in every school. The cost of maintaining these facilities and the associated staffing structures is born equally by parent (independent school) or state (academy) and every child invests valuable time each week in their Sports/Physical Education Programme. Therefore, every student in every school should benefit equally and have access to a broad and balanced PE programme, with a strong focus on active participation rather than specialism.

Make no mistake, my argument for high quality Physical Education delivered by well-trained Physical Educators, does not mean I am arguing against elite pathways and striving for high performance. Far from it. However, using music and drama as examples – all can take part in lessons and are enriched from the associated experiences these subjects offer, but not all will play in the orchestra or take to the stage for the school production of twelfth night. The same applies to all students studying GCSE maths, not all student will go on to study maths at A level. There is the valued developmental core experience and the additional extension opportunities to develop and realise unique individual talents.

I would argue that Physical Education as a subject, is one of, if not the most important subjects on the curriculum in the twenty first century, where sedentary life styles, technology, fast food, and stressful work environments threaten not only our students’ future happiness but also their longevity. In schools, there need to be pathways which allow some to play for their school and county teams or strive for national honours, but allow others to enjoy the fun of participation and develop active lifestyles, with the many associated benefits. A philosophy best summed up by Association for Physical Education: Physical Education is the planned, progressive learning that takes place in school curriculum timetabled time and which is delivered to all pupils. This involves both ‘learning to move’ (i.e. becoming more physically competent) and ‘moving to learn’ (e.g. learning through movement, a range of skills and understandings beyond physical activity, such as co-operating with others). The context for the learning is physical activity, with children experiencing a broad range of activities, including sport and dance.

 

Mark Attenburrow

(Head of ITT Physical Education)

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