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10 Things That Need to Change to Improve Primary PE

Updated: Feb 25, 2020

What Could Possibly be Wrong with Primary PE?

Not a week goes by without (should you look beyond the Brexit headlines) concerns being raised about the obesity crisis and the strain being put onto the NHS. Indeed, for many years now the obesity rate has roughly doubled for children starting primary school to those finishing this stage of their education.

I’ve preached the values and positive outcomes of primary PE for years now and yet on almost a daily basis I come across a number of recurring issues that some may consider harmful, others merely problematic in the development of high-quality PE in our schools.

Well I guess here I am with a ‘blog style’ article. I should point out to the reader that this is merely my humble opinions, I know we live in a society now where it appears acceptable to castigate somebody whose opinion differs from theirs, and if your opinions differs from mine I would love you to comment, but please do it in a respectful and professional manner.

So here goes, my ‘top-ten’ if you like. These are in no way meant to be in any order, simply my modest musings.

1. Sport Based Curriculum Maps

Not a week passes when I don’t see one of these. Primary PE co-ordinators aren’t distinguishing between Physical Education/Physical Literacy and sport coaching. If I see another curriculum map where Y1 children face a block of Tennis I think I will have to run for the hills so that nobody can hear me scream! These children don’t know how to run properly at this stage of their development; they can’t take off on two feet; they haven’t learned to roll a ball yet; they cannot hop, skip or throw a ball underarm…yet it’s apparently acceptable to give them a heavy tennis racket and ask them to hit a small moving ball with it!

Its been said in the past that the one thing that puts children off of sport…is sport and no where is this more evident than in the PE curriculum maps that they face. I well remember having a dislike of running drilled into me every post-Christmas to February half-term PE lesson where the topic was cross country running. A child faces a long half-term of PE if they are faced with 6-12 lessons on a sport that they dislike. But it doesn’t have to be like this!

The National Curriculum is now a skills based one so why aren’t we seeing more units of work that focus upon a specific skill set where a range of activities and sports are used?

Have to say a lot of this problem is compounded by the School Games programme. In so many of our schools, PE co-ordinators are driven to write curriculum maps that align with the School Games programme. “Y5 Hockey tournament after Easter, so I want a block of Hockey starting after February half-term please” (or from the start of September for schools still driven to wipe the floor with every other Primary school in their partnership, whose only goal is to send the children of their neighbouring schools home in tears after a mauling on the Hockey field.) Stop it! Your curriculum map should reflect the learning requirements of your children…not a bloody School Games programme!

2. Single-Sport Coaches

“You’ll be pleasantly surprised”, a headteacher recently told me. “We take PE seriously and this year the children have had lessons from a specialist handball coach, a cricket coach, a rounders coach and an athletics coach.”

My head thumped in pain as I heard this. Wondering whether I should point out that the children had therefore been taught the overarm throwing method by 4 individual coaches, each of whom had no inkling of the prior learning of their children and none of whom had any chance therefore to transfer previously learned skills into their specialist field.

I feel for the single sport coach brought in to simply deliver a six-week block of lessons in their field. They have no prior understanding of what the children are capable of. They don’t know about any social or emotional needs that individual children have and they aren’t working with the children for long enough to develop a relationship based upon mutual trust…oh that and the fact that they simply do not have the specialist knowledge of the National Curriculum – its not as if their National Governing Body has any need to develop this knowledge in their coaches!

Oddly am still awaiting a conversation with a Headteacher who brags that a class has had 6 different Maths teachers this year…one who worked on multiplication; one whose speciality was fraction; another who delivered data collection; another who…(you get the gist!) Why break up the PE curriculum with different teachers but not every other curriculum subject? Ludicrous!

3. Command Teaching Style

We’re VERY good at this aren’t we? Its all we ever seem to use when delivering PE.

“This is what we are going to learn today children.” – “Watch me demonstrate.” – “Here are the coaching points.” “Now let’s go into this drill” – Aaaarrrggghhhhh!

Does this happen in Maths? English? Art? – No, it doesn’t! Teachers use different teaching methods and styles to engage their children. Other subjects talk about ‘guided discovery’, ‘task teaching’, ‘reciprocal learning’. The PE lesson though sticks with its trusted command style and therefore misses the opportunity to engage pupils more in their learning.

When I spent more time delivering PE my personal favourite was reciprocal teaching. Others seemed wary, possibly due to the lengthier preparation that it required but it allowed for some really detailed questioning of pupils enabling me to fully assess their understanding of a skill or technique. It helped develop communication and collaboration skills as well as enabling pupils to develop peer assessment skills and strategies. We need to develop a broader teaching style skill-set amongst our primary practitioners…oh hang on, they already have these skills…so why not utilise them in PE?

4. Differentiation

I feel for primary school children, I really do! Almost every lesson the teacher is skilled enough to provide differentiated activities to ensure they have appropriate challenge and are able to develop their skills.

Except it would appear in PE. Of the hundreds of lessons primary PE lessons that I have observed, I would suggest that (maybe) as high as 1% of them have some differentiated activities in them.

A few years ago, my son, who was then in year 4, along with all of his class had a football PE lesson. I coached or had coached about 8 or 9 of the boys in that class over the previous two years as a grassroots football coach. My lad wasn’t as enthusiastic about the PE lesson he had just received as he usually was so I asked him what was up. His answer dispelled my faith in his then teacher as he explained in detail that he had been spending the entire lesson in a line facing his partner passing the ball between them. He claimed that one of the boys, that I knew, had dared to say to the teacher “I know how to do this” but was told that this didn’t matter as there were children in the class who couldn’t pass the ball properly and the teacher had to make sure that everyone could before moving on to a new skill! Result = learning opportunity wasted for about one third of that class!

We are in truth very good at teaching the activity in PE. Teachers take ages constructing superb drills and sequences for their class. But we are not very good at teaching the child. Its time to remedy that and remind ourselves occasionally that we do not have class 5T in front of us, as we demonstrate ludicrous drills in our pristine tracksuits…we have 30 individual children, ALL of whom are at a different stage of their learning in PE.

5. Assessment

Apologies for harking back to my son again but having followed his academic career to date I now feel perfectly able to predict, to the word, what his PE report is likely to say every year:

“Alek really enjoys PE and has had a great year. This year we have done units of work in basketball, gymnastics, handball, dance, athletics and rounders and Alek has done well in all areas. He has also represented the school at football and tag-rugby and I look forward to seeing how well he progresses next year in this subject.”

That’s it! Has been from Y1 to Y6.

Nothing in KS1 that resembled telling me how he is developing with regards to fundamental movement skills; his agility, balance and co-ordination; his ability to evaluate and recognise his own success; or how he competes against his self and against others. Not a single KS2 report to date has mentioned how (if) he can apply skills in different ways or link and sequence actions or his ability to collaborate, communicate or compete. You know…the things that the National Curriculum asks us to report upon!

6. PE used as a Reward

Many years ago when I taught in a school in the East End of Newcastle, I remember a long conversation with a pastoral head regarding a challenging young lad in Y10, for the sake of anonymity I will call him Liam. I was asked “Can you please not pick Liam for the football match this week? He hasn’t had a good week and we’re having to move him onto a red report card.”

The concern I had was from the flip side of the coin. I’d known Liam since Y7 and he had a lot of things going on in his life. He wasn’t academic and had trouble sitting still, let alone doing work at a desk in silence. But there was one subject that Liam enjoyed, one that allowed him to develop his creativity, to expend some energy and one in which he actually excelled…and that (of course) was PE. Should I know stop Liam from doing the one positive thing that he enjoyed doing in school? Of course, I couldn’t! And I didn’t!

I’ve heard first hand about PE lessons being cancelled because a few of the children wouldn’t behave in their English lesson beforehand; I know of instances when children’s PE lessons have been curtailed so that the teacher can continue a maths lesson that she started earlier but due to her incompetence at managing behaviour, needed finishing.

And just about when I thought I’d heard everything then a new curveball hits me squarely in my already aching head. A school where their second PE lesson of the week was part of the children’s “Golden Time” and only children who had earned the right to take part, accessed this second learning opportunity.

We now seem to live in a world of petitions…may I ask people to get behind my campaign to ensure that the teaching of quadratic equations is used solely as a reward for pupils who have excelled in everything they have done that week. After all, surely only “good” children should access this wonderous learning experience? And for that matter, Ox-Bow lakes…this sort of knowledge shouldn’t be passed on to naughty pupils!

7. Christmas

Now I am not for one-minute suggesting sending the season of goodwill into the darkened perils of Room 101 but for God’s sake headteachers/PE Co-ordinators! It comes around every year! Surely this hasn’t caught you out again? “We can’t do PE this week as the stage is out/chairs are out for the carol concert/stalls are set up for our Christmas Fayre/the hall is being used for rehearsals of the Christmas play (delete as appropriate).

Really? Can we not be a little bit more inventive during this time? Can we not get children outside? (Why shouldn’t they be wearing coats?) Develop this period for OAA activities? Schedule our block of swimming in during December? Develop fitness (high activity levels when outside in the cold) and health units? Use spaces around the school creatively to develop activities that require less space (aerobics/yoga?). High intensity SAQ sessions in the playground? Orienteering around the paths and outdoor spaces?

In the words of the immortal song…”All I want for Christmas is….creative, active PE lessons that allows children’s skills to continue developing rather than the subject grinding to a stop!”

8. Teacher Training

What seems like many years ago now, PE was well funded. Lead by the efforts of the Youth Sport Trust and a network of Sports Colleges and School Sport Partnerships we were beginning to notice demonstratable improvements in the teaching of primary PE. I remember listening to the erstwhile chief of the YST, Sue Campbell (as she was before her deserved title was bestowed upon her), telling a packed conference hall that we had to provide legacy. She noted the millions (billions?) of pounds that had been invested in PE by the then Labour government. She led a rallying cry that this would have been wasted if we did not provide a future of sustainable high-quality PE delivery in our schools.

Have we wasted millions of pounds? Is there high-quality PE in every single one of our schools?

Now I am certainly not here to disparage the Baroness. Her intervention made a government sit up and take notice. However, there was one crucial element missing from her grand plan, and one which I assume she had no control over (else it certainly would have happened). This was the role of the teacher training organisations and more importantly the amount of time they devote to PE in their one-year QTS qualifications.

I spoke recently to an RQT (seriously do we need this title? Might as well stick a green L-Plate on their back) who had gone into teaching the ‘traditional’ way – degree followed by a 1-year teacher training qual. She estimated that she had been given approximately 5-6 hours of PE training in that year…roughly equivalent to one day out of a year-long (shall we estimate a 180 day?) course.

So…0.55% of the training was spent on a subject that in a school devoting 2 hours per week to the subject, takes up 8% of the curriculum time (or 4% in a not so forward-thinking school). The numbers simply do not add up!

9. Technology

In just about every school we work with there are sets of I-pads. Most have laptops, cameras and video cameras; many even have interactive whiteboards in the hall. Some schools provide options for pupils to either purchase a tablet or hire one for all the time they are in school. These get used extensively in English, Maths, Science, Music, Art, Technology, Humanities and all other areas of the curriculum…except (yes, you’ve guessed it) PE!

I watched one of my Educators recently suggest to the teacher she was mentoring as part of the PECS programme that they place an I-pad on every work station. They had a delay play-back video app installed which showed on screen what it had recorded 30 seconds ago. The children began their task of doing forward rolls and tuck rolls and having finished an attempt they walked round to watch themselves perform. Here is where the light-bulb moment flashed! They could see their errors, however minute. It allowed them to focus on one slight error at a time and work until they had rectified it. Compare this to the more traditional approach of one teacher trying to watch a number of children at the same time before bellowing instructions such as “Annabelle straighten that left arm, Kevin (yes I know we don’t have Kevin’s in school anymore) tuck that chin in, Dylan push-off of both feet, Crystal lock that wrist nice and straight”. Never before had I seen such good progress made in one lesson from every child in that class!

But, and here’s the big but! Technology use must be appropriate and enhance children’s learning. Snapping away with a digital camera and uploading it to a website demonstrates only that the teacher has covered a specific skill, it does not enhance learning. So, teachers get that whiteboard turned on; wheel the I-pad trolley in to your lesson; dare I suggest getting the pupils to use their smart-phones…actually that’s a whole new blog article/debate…but don’t be afraid to use the wonders of modern technology in your PE lessons!

10. Storage

Now I am not disparaging the humble PE cupboard…although as a former Head of PE I still occasionally wake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night whilst screaming the words “who left them there? God is it so hard to put things away in the right place?” But I really must fly the flag for the PE Co-ordinator here and yell to the World (or whoever is listening at the time) “Headteachers, PE Equipment is BIG! It needs sufficient storage space!”

Due to the ring-fenced PESS funding schools have never been so well equipped, I can see this as practically every hall has it draped/stacked/sprawled around the outside of it! I used to go into a school hall and along the sides there would be benches and not an eyebrow was raised. Due mainly to the fact that benches were useful. They provided somewhere for the children to sit down whilst the teacher registered the class and delivered introductions and plenaries. Perhaps we were too soft allowing ‘bench encroachment’ on our teaching space? Now I walk into halls and see a plethora of equipment reducing work space and providing potential hazards everywhere! A trolley full of gym mats; metal cages full of basketballs; vaults and tables; stacks of hula-hoops; netball posts; piles of TOPS bags (unfortunately laying unopened since 2008); huge garden containers full of every single piece of equipment that doesn’t have a place anywhere else (sponge balls with holes in; penny-floater footballs; beanbags shaped like frogs; half a set of numbered floor markers; broken skipping ropes etc.).

There is a solution, but it will be different for every school. Whether it involves a shed or small shipping container or clearing out the archive cupboard and storing its contents elsewhere. But please, please give your children a risk free, large space to develop their physical literacy!

And there it is, my ‘in no order whatsoever top ten’ of problems with Primary School PE. This list was never meant to be exhaustive…I wouldn’t want to either (a) bore you into submission or (b) write a short novella. There are many other challenges facing the subject (reliance on English and Maths SATS as the only means of making a judgement on a school; the inability to test/assess fitness due to cardio-vascular fitness testing only being reliable if children are worked to exhaustion; health and safety aficionados; inadequate providers being subsidised by public funding; certain NGBs and mega-money leagues trying to hijack the National Curriculum for the advantage of their own sport…I could go on.

We need to hark back to the outcomes of PE and the rich tapestry of benefits that the subject provides to our young learners. Anybody who hasn’t seen the AfPE poster demonstrating the wide-ranging benefits and outcomes of the subject should meander over to their website and download it. Does any other subject provide this many positive learning experiences and outcomes for young people? (I’m leaving that question floating without a reply before I receive a torrent of comments from other subject co-ordinators!)

Physical Education is an important part of a child’s physical, social, emotional and health development. Perhaps I have matured since my early days as a Head of PE. In my first week in this role I was called into a meeting with all other subject co-ordinators and the headteacher in a bid to persuade the school management to release more budget funding to my subject. I was last on the agenda and following presentations from English (a detailed handout), Maths (spreadsheet), Humanities (mind-map) all the way through to the penultimate subject Music (who, thankfully did not present in the version of a song), I was asked why PE deserved more funding? My response may have been naïve (or possibly impassioned) “PE underpins every subject learning matter. I fully respect the comments my colleagues have made today, and I support every single one of them. I look forward to a World where every child from this school achieves outstanding academic grades and progresses into further or higher education. I genuinely believe that the best way to improve society is to develop a generation of academically astute young people. (Pause for effect) However if most of them suffer from bad health or are dead by the age of 35 from coronary heart disease, those major issues that being healthy and active can prevent, then what good have the efforts of every other department in this school achieved?”

I was called in by the Headteacher at 7:30am the next morning! My PE budget had doubled overnight!

What is success for me as I finish this article? If one person, in one school addresses and solves one of these issues, even if it is for just one class in that school, then the time I have spent writing this has been worthwhile.

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