Exploring #PhysEd in Scotland: Part of the 2021 Series

Global Perspectives


This blog series seeks to explore how Physical Education is designed and practiced in countries around the world. The intention is to give insight and hopefully inspiration to help improve it for all young people, both now and for the future.

If you have insight from a country we have not yet covered, then we would love to hear from you, please get in touch.

UNESCO published its ‘Quality Physical Education’ (QPE) guidelines for policymakers back in 2017. It includes a great video clip and infographic identifying some of the wide range of benefits of QPE and the following extract reminding us that PE is not just a nice to have in education, it is a human right for all children and young people!

“Every human being has a fundamental right of access to physical education and sport, which are essential for the full development of his personality. The freedom to develop physical, intellectual and moral powers through physical education and sport must be guaranteed both within the educational system and in other aspects of social life.”

The UNESCO Charter of Physical Education and Sport (1978)

Exploring #PhysEd in Scotland

Source: https://education.gov.scot/improvement/documents/hwb9-significant-aspects-of-learning-in-pe.pdf

In Context

As I am sure all readers are well aware, Scotland is part of the United Kingdom and is in Europe. Since 1999 Scotland has had devolved power to design and deliver their education system to best meet the needs of learners.  The population of Scotland stood at a little under 5.5 million in 2019. The population is spread over 77,910 km2. So, a little over half the size of England with about 10% of the population. It has a 154km long border with England (near Hadrian’s Wall) to the south, is otherwise surrounded by the sea, and boasts over 790 islands of which 94 have permanent inhabitants. Edinburgh is the capital city and Glasgow has the highest population. Scotland is divided into 32 local authorities and, like in England, the school system can vary considerably from region to region to help cater for its unique context.

There are a little over 5,000 schools in Scotland, catering for all children aged 3-18. There are 2,544 early learning centres, 2,012 primary schools (ages 5-10/11), 357 secondary (high) schools (compulsory until aged 16 but many stay on to 18) and 133 special schools. The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) sets exams, Physical Education is available at National (level 2, 3/4/5 sat aged 15/16 (Fourth year at school) and Higher levels (Level 6) which unlocks access to study further at university and Advanced Higher Level 7AND ADVANCED HIGHER LEVEL 7.

The University of Stirling and University of Edinburgh offer four-year courses to study to become a PE teacher. Similar to in England, there are some primary PE specialists but the majority of primary school staff are ‘generalists’ who teach all subjects as well as a team of PE teachers in each secondary school. The profession is well represented by SATPE, its dedicated subject association.

In Policy

Education Scotland released its Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in 2008 response to the Donaldson report. The focus of this new curriculum was to ensure all students gain ‘the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for life in the 21st century’. The following four capacities sit at the centre of the offer:

  • Developing successful learners
  • Developing confident individuals
  • Developing responsible citizens
  • Developing effective contributors

Health and wellbeing (HWB) is one of eight curriculum areas that is recognised alongside literacy and numeracy as particularly important with responsibility placed on all staff to help develop it. The experiences and outcomes expected from health and wellbeing are explicitly laid out as follows.

“Learning in health and wellbeing ensures that children and young people develop the knowledge and understanding, skills, capabilities and attributes which they need for mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing now and in the future.

Each establishment, working with partners, should take a holistic approach to promoting health and wellbeing, one that takes account of the stage of growth, development and maturity of each individual, and the social and community context.

I can expect my learning environment to support me to:

  • develop my self-awareness, self-worth and respect for others
  • meet challenges, manage change and build relationships
  • experience personal achievement and build my resilience and confidence
  • understand and develop my physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing and social skills
  • understand how what I eat, how active I am and how decisions I make about my behaviour and relationships affect my physical and mental wellbeing
  • participate in a wide range of activities which promote a healthy lifestyle
  • understand that adults in my school community have a responsibility to look after me, listen to my concerns and involve others where necessary
  • learn about where to find help and resources to inform choices
  • assess and manage risk and understand the impact of risk-taking behaviour
  • reflect on my strengths and skills to help me make informed choices when planning my next steps • acknowledge diversity and understand that it is everyone’s responsibility to challenge discrimination.

(Source: Health and Wellbeing Experiences and Outcomes, page 1)

Physical Education forms a part of the offer supporting HWB.

“Physical education provides learners with a platform from which they can build physical competences, improve aspects of fitness, and develop personal and interpersonal skills and attributes. It enables learners to develop the concepts and skills necessary for participation in a wide range of physical activity, sport, dance and outdoor learning, and enhances their physical wellbeing in preparation for leading a fulfilling, active and healthy lifestyle.

They encounter a variety of practical learning experiences, including working on their own, with a partner and in small and large groups, and using small and large equipment and apparatus, both outdoors and indoors.

Learning in, through and about physical education is enhanced by participating on a regular basis in a wide range of purposeful, challenging, progressive and enjoyable physical activities with choice built in for all learners. The Scottish Government expects schools to continue to work towards the provision of at least two hours of good quality physical education for every child, every week”.

(Source: Health and Wellbeing Experiences and Outcomes, page 5)

Learning is split into the following categories:

  • Movement skills, competences and concepts
  • Cooperation and competition
  • Evaluating and appreciating

Physical activity, sport, food and nutrition are also covered in the policy document along with aspects such as substance abuse, relationships and sex education.

In March 2017 Education Scotland released ‘Benchmarks’ for each curriculum area, providing absolute clarity on the standards that students should meet (from early through to fourth level) against each aspect of the experiences and outcomes (E&O). For PE there are three areas that fit within the wider ‘health and wellbeing’ area as follows:

Source: https://education.gov.scot/education-scotland/scottish-education-system/policy-for-scottish-education/policy-drivers/cfe-building-from-the-statement-appendix-incl-btc1-5/experiences-and-outcomes/#hwb

In Practice

The landscape for PE across Scotland is fairly centralised and supported via local authorities.

An example of how this looks from Chris Crookston and his primary school, uses the curriculum to build the foundation of physical literacy and the four organisers. Using the E&O to establish our Learning Intentions and the benchmarks to create our Success Criteria. They have broken this Learn down into permanent Learning Intention & Success Criteria that can be used across a variety of different contexts and pedagogies. See an example below:

We learn and develop this through a variety of different contexts and pedagogies. See the table below as an example.


We use pedagogies such as Better Movers Thinkers (BMT), Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU), Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS), Sport Education and Cooperative Learning to achieve progress in the 4 areas. Providing breadth and depth across a variety of contexts at Early & 1st Level such as Athletics/ Fitness, Invasion Games, Net/ Wall Games, Target Games, Striking Games and Gymnastics. These contexts are focussed further in sport specific contexts at 2nd Level, such as Basketball, Badminton, Tennis – this aids transition into Secondary school to align with the contexts they will be learning within 3rd & 4th Level.

Holistic assessment of pupil progress is often monitored through pupil profiles and tracking and monitoring by class teachers on an ongoing basis – making a professional judgement on pupils progress over a period of time and not a snapshot.

The experiences and outcomes conclude upon reaching Secondary Stage 3, the final year of the Broad General Education.  As within the primary context, Physical Education in Scottish high schools has a structure as such that experiences and outcomes are taught ranging mostly from levels 2-4 (Rarely referring back to the early 0 and 1st levels). Progress in these areas is tracked and monitored utilising the ‘benchmarks’.  Every school does this using activities to suit them in ways that suit them.  An example of how this could be done is included below;

This is a self-reflection rubric used by high school pupils. Pupils are encouraged to review content based on the benchmarks set out by Education Scotland and judge their current ‘level’ within the key concept areas. This is then the basis for ‘learner conversations’ between the teacher and pupil to agree on levels now including the professional judgement of the teacher before going on to include next steps, goals and targets.

It should at this point be made clear that pupil progress in Physical Education is tracked across four key concept areas underpinned by twenty-four features.  Only four of these areas would be what someone might consider ‘traditional PE’.  It Is not a prerequisite for PE in Scotland to track pupils progress specifically in activities as it is perhaps in other nations. However, it is implied that performance in any activity will improve by developing knowledge and skills in the four key concept areas.

In Conclusion

A strength to the CfE is that every teacher is expected to contribute to the health and wellbeing of their students, recognising its importance alongside literacy and numeracy.

CFE really recognises PE’s contribution to Mental, Emotional, Social and Physical health and understanding, rather than the archaic model of ‘Games’ – we would see this as a strength.


  1. 2014 Scottish Government made a commitment “to schools delivering at least two hours of PE for all pupils in primary school, and at least two periods of PE for all pupils between Secondary 1 and Secondary 4 – this equates to 100 minutes”.
  2. Whilst we run a centralised system it is based very much on interpretation of Head Teachers and Local Authorities, allowing for significant diversifying of curriculum content particularly noticeable in PE.
  3. Again, much the same as England, HMIE (Ofsted equivalent in Scotland) has a larger part to play – Whilst CfE offers its open and expansive look at education the underpinning need to do well as a school and achieve positive destinations for pupils via examination is prominent.
  4. The PE profession is recognised by its ability to innovate, organise and collaborate to better meet the needs of more students and is increasingly aware of the need to focus on mental, social and emotional domains of learning rather than historic domination of the physical domain
  5. Separating out Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport started around 2012 – Scotland shows a very good understanding of the differences in these three areas and continues to do so.

If you have a different perspective to that described above or would like to contribute to a similar blog on a different country then we would love to hear from you, please get in touch.

Helpful links

Education Scotland:

About the authors

  • Will Swaithes – teacher, teacher educator and specialist leader of education (SLE) for Physical Education based in Nottinghamshire – @WillSwaithes
  • Paddy Cuthbertson – Principal Teacher of Physical Education at Turnbull High School and SATPE President – @MrCuthbertsonPE   |  @SATPE1
  • Chris Crookson – SATPE Primary Lead & Primary PE Specialist, South Ayrshire Council – @ChrisCrooky  |  @SATPE_Primary

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