Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Physical Literacy - Should PE become a core subject?

With obesity on the rise, is it time for PE to be at the
heart of school life in the same way as literacy and numeracy?
(Pic : The Telegraph)
On Monday, a Sports Wales Task & Finish Group - chaired by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson - reported back to the Welsh Government their proposals to increase levels of physical activity in schools.

I've covered the "obesity crisis" in Wales before, but the requirement for a review into school activity is laid out in very stark terms in the report (which you can read here) :
  • 36% of under-16s in Wales are overweight or obese (2010).
  • The percentage of 2-15 year olds who are obese rose from 16% in 2008 to 19% in 2010.
  • Just 28% of primary and 26% of secondary school pupils are said to be "regularly active".

There was a separate warning from the Assembly's Health Committee, whose latest report suggests diabetes is reaching "epidemic" proportions in Wales, and the Welsh Government are likely to miss targets for tackling the disease. Type II diabetes is linked to excess body weight.

So if nothing's done, in the long term it's going to lead to reduced healthy life expectancy and put immense strain on NHS resources. It's also likely to be the first thing in Leighton Andrews' successor's in-tray.

School PE – The current situation

PE is a compulsory part of the national curriculum for 3-16 year olds, but it's compulsory in the same way religious education, PSE and IT are – usually one or two teaching hours a week. There could be simple practical reasons why, like too few facilities for too many pupils.

The report cites research that suggests the vast majority (74%) of primary school pupils enjoy physical activity "a lot", with only 4% saying they don't enjoy it at all. That changes in secondary school, with only 50% enjoying it "a lot" and 14% not enjoying it at all. The report hints that PE lessons themselves might be putting pupils off regular exercise.

It's said that while professional athletes and big sporting events like the Olympics provide "inspiration" – and have led to "promising" increases in sports participation in Wales since – they don't provide enough of an inspiration for the "hardest to reach".

What does the report recommend?

PE lessons and teachers don't have the best of reputations.
But is their contribution to pupils' future wellbeing undervalued?
(Pic : Vest Virginia Surf Report)

There was one major headline recommendation – that PE should become a "core subject" in the national curriculum alongside English, maths and science (and Welsh first language in Welsh medium schools).

That would require a significant shift in mindset to make the subject more "valued". They want more teachers to take part in the Physical Education and School Sport (PESS) programme, which offers higher quality training, in order to develop "expert teachers".

Allied to this, there's a desire to create a framework for "physical literacy" in the curriculum – physical literacy defined roughly as, "having the motivation and confidence to become physically competent". It'll mean all teachers will have to show competence when it comes to PE in the same way they have to for literacy and numeracy.

It's estimated the cost of developing this would be around £5million.

I think that's sound. If you don't teach languages properly, you end up with illiterates. If you don't teach maths properly, you end up with innumerates. If you don't teach science properly, people get killed by plug sockets. If you don't teach PE properly, people will grow up to live unhealthy lifestyles.

What else could be done?

  • PE (in secondary schools) could be "streamed" – The more able are currently taught PE alongside those who aren't as good or confident. That's unfair to both groups. Separate the "elite", who could go down the road of more professional coaching, from those who need exercise for exercise's sake.
  • Doctor/Nurse exemptions only? - Pupils are actually going to have to participate in PE regularly in order for this to work, so exemptions from lessons could perhaps be a certificate signed by a GP or school nurse. However, certain biological cycles would make PE uncomfortable for girls and could complicate matters here. So maybe that could be treated with more tact and as a special case.
  • Change PE outfits – Schools shouldn't have a set "PE kit", and perhaps should let pupils choose what they wear when doing exercise. This could help girls and the overweight in particular for obvious reasons.
  • Better organised sport clubs & competitions out-of-school – That's a whole topic in itself, but if you want pupils to be healthy and active all year round, they'll have to be active outside of PE lessons as well. I've mentioned "umbrella clubs" before, with many different sports playing under one co-operative identity in a given area.
  • Make use of out-of-school facilities – This was hinted at in the report, and many schools already do this to a certain extent. If a school is close enough to a leisure centre, for example, but don't have the facilities on school sites, should they have time set aside to use them exclusively?
  • Be creative – PE shouldn't be all ball games, atheltics and gymnastics. The definition of PE could be expanded to include things like martial arts, outdoor activities like geocaching and cycling, mixed-sex sports like korfball, as well as dancing exercises and pool-based exercise. Schools could work in partnership with outside experts and sports bodies to develop these classes.

What are the other issues?

I think it's going to be very difficult to incorporate the Chief Medical Officer's recommendation of three hours of "vigorous physical activity" for every pupil per week into school timetables, especially in secondary schools. We're going to have to give serious consideration to extending the school day if that's the benchmark level of exercise the Welsh Government eventually want to adopt.

Does physical activity stop at the school gates?
(Pic :

Physical fitness doesn't just come down to exercise either. You could easily argue that nutrition should become a core subject for the same reasons as PE. We also have to encourage walking and cycling to school (and generally in life) and provide healthier meals in school canteens.

As well as increased physical activity, schools are going to have to offer more choice in terms of those activities, especially if they want to get to those "hard to reach" groups.

Even at my biggest I was strong for my size and had a decent throwing arm. But running for extended periods of time was painful, I'm not tall enough to be a useful rugby player, so-so at football and a poor swimmer. Maybe pupils should be pointed towards activities that take advantage of innate physical abilities and likes - with teachers trained to look for those strengths and guide pupils towards sports they might actually be good at.

So it's fair to say that I really enjoyed some sports and activities, and genuinely dreaded others, groaning whenever I saw PE on the timetable. Heavy rain during the summer so we would play handball or 5-a-side instead of doing cross country or athletics felt like a godsend. Did anyone else think like that?

PE is currently taught in a way that's a bit like going to subject called "art", having to play a musical instrument – regardless of talent - and getting ripped apart if you're not any good. That's silly, isn't it?

Do we need to be careful that the emphasis
on healthy lifestyles doesn't lead to
over-emphasis on a physical "ideal" ?
(Pic :

There's also the overarching issue of body image. Even if the underlying principle of more exercise is fine, you're going to have to be careful that the emphasis on "healthy bodies" doesn't lead to pupils developing a complex.
It needs to be made clear to everyone from an early age that we all come in different shapes and sizes, and that's fine, but you still need to live healthily.How would teachers be able to do that if on the one hand they're telling pupils they're fine the way they are, and on the other asking them – "Do you even lift?"

Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) has advocated self-esteem lessons in schools. I can understand why, but aren't body image issues indirectly a result of everyone else's attitudes and the media, not the self? Maybe teaching compassion would be better, if somewhat more difficult.


  1. I dismissed the idea of PE becoming a core subject as something fanciful as soon as I heard it. Although I can't put my finger on it, I think the definition of a core subject is one that is fundamental because, without it, would be impossible to adequately learn other subjects. PE clearly isn't in that category.

    Perhaps that definition has got lost over time, and at present the significance of a subject being a core subject is its place in the Core Subject Indicator. It is partly (or even mostly) in order to achieve a good CSI rating that schools concentrate resources on these subjects. The report talks of "measurable and significant outcomes" as if they were an intrinsic consequence of PE becoming a core subject, but how on earth can you mark a child's achievments in PE? Does a child that can run fast get a 75% mark and a child that can't jump very high only get a 30% mark?

    So making it a core subject isn't feasible, but that doesn't change the need to look at how we can do PE better, or the importance of doing it both for the sake of quality of life, and for the practical reason that it will reduce the large amount of money that the NHS would otherwise need to spend to deal with the consequences of poor lifestyles on health.

    I agree with nearly all of what you've said. The one thread that I'd particularly pick up on is that PE is fine for those who are good at it, but can be a nightmare of embarrassment and inadequacy for those who aren't. I think this is probably the biggest problem. One answer that appeals to me is for PE not to be done as if it were any other lesson taking up a number of set periods every week.

    It would be done after (and perhaps even before) the formally timetabled school day (perhaps a shortened school day) and children would have a wide choice of different physical activities to be involved in on different days. These could be sports like football, rugby, cricket, basketball. Or could be aerobics, dancing, circuit training, yoga, tai chi. Every child would have to do one or two of these, and one of the major responsibilities of PE teachers would be to help them decide which combination would be best for them individually, as you said.

    Kids could chop and change between groups and their absence from a certain group in which they might otherwise feel embarrassed or mocked would be taken as a sign that they'd moved on to something else rather than that they were one of the group of either "weedy" or "chubby" kids who would do anything to be excused from PE because the whole class had to do it together at the same time.

    This same extended, non-formal time before and after school could also be used for other projects, homework computer access or learning to play a musical instrument. One child would do things on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, another on Tuesday and Thursday mornings ... and those who wanted to could do something on every day of the week. It would all cost money, which is in short supply right now. But it would probably more than pay for itself in the long term.

    This flexibility would be a big help in terms of parents' work patterns too. But one downside would be that it would complicate school transport arrangements, especially for those who have to travel a considerable distance to Welsh-medium or faith schools. But perhaps even that could be solved by not having to do these things at your own school.

  2. Thanks, MH.

    It was definitely a headline-grabbing suggestion, and I was sceptical too when I first heard it. Though if you treat it in the context of a subject "necessary to pupils' well being in their adult lives", then "living a healthy lifestyle" probably would count as a core subject (but that could also mean PSE too).

    PE is already a compulsory part of the basic curriculum, like PSE, and it should probably be a core subject on those terms or even combined into joint "Physical & Social Education". We do have to remember that PE is offered as an academic subject at GCSE & A-Level, so it can be assessed, usually as a mix of practical/technique and theory. That's going to be impossible for those who aren't naturally gifted to do the subject though.

    I agree on making PE, in effect, "extra curricular but compulsory". I'd agree on arts subjects like music and drama too. It could perhaps form key element of the Welsh Baccalaureate in the same way similar activities form part of the International Baccalaureate.

    I think offering more choice is going to be essential, but as you said, the issue is whether schools will be able to afford it, and whether teachers are going to think that they're being taken less seriously by not being rigidly timetabled into student's lives.

    I also agree about the transport and out-of-school problems. A big issue with moving some of these acitivites off-site would be that they would still require supervision to make sure they don't bunk off. Teaching unions would wail like banshees is they had to supervise activities off school grounds.

  3. Ok, so we want more physical activity and reacreation, including active travel and better public transport. What kind of message does building a new motorway send out? This is an utter disaster by Edwina.

  4. Thanks, Anon.

    Well, I suppose the M4 is more a transport issue than health, and it's not really down to Edwina Hart alone as the UK Government seem keen to push it through too. I would prefer to improve the existing M4 and build the eastern Cardiff link.

    If you mean "the money could be better spent elsewhere", I agree. Even a fraction of that sort of money would do wonders for sports teaching in schools and our future health.