Is it time to ditch changing during PE lessons?

By Paul Sammon & Lee Sullivan

Our inspiration for writing this blog stems from a shared concern and frustration at the significant amount of timetabled curriculum time for physical education (PE) being lost to changing during lessons. Thus, our intention is to question this practice and we hope that our thoughts will stimulate further debate.

The Pandemic

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many schools permitted students to come to school in PE kit on the days that they had timetabled lessons, in order to avoid cramped changing room spaces and adhere to social distancing requirements.  There can be no doubt that this practice was potentially beneficial in terms of increasing physical activity time, decreased bullying opportunities and reduced student anxiety. Post-Covid, a large number of primary schools continue to allow their students to come to school in PE kit, yet many secondary schools have returned to their pre-pandemic uniform policy insisting that students get changed during lesson time. This conflicted practice raises an important question as to whether changing during PE lessons represents the best use of precious, yet limited, curriculum time? 

Lost Curriculum and Activity Time

According to the latest Active Lives Children and Young People Survey (Sport England, 2022), less than half (47%) of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) in England are meeting the UK Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines of taking part in an average of 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity. For some young people, often the most vulnerable or disadvantaged, curriculum PE represents the only opportunity each week to engage in a structured physical activity context. Yet, in England, curriculum hours for PE have fallen by 11% since 2011, with this decline especially marked at Key Stage 4 (Youth Sport Trust, 2023).

A key aim of the National Curriculum for PE (DfE, 2013) is that all students should have the opportunity to be physically active for sustained periods of time. More specifically, the Association for Physical Education recommend in their Health Position Paper that students should be actively moving for 50-80% of the available learning time during PE lessons (Harris, 2020). Ideally, this would equate to students being active for somewhere between 30-48 minutes of a 60 minute lesson. However, Beale et al. (2021) found that students are actually not very active during PE, with no lesson observed achieving 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per hour of PE. Indeed, the lesson average MVPA observed was only 23.8% and sedentary time was 44.3%.

These low levels of reported activity time during PE question the need for students to get changed after lessons on hygiene grounds. Indeed, sportswear, such as PE kit, is specifically designed to help temperature regulation, so it should help to keep students cool and comfortable, especially during warm weather. We fully appreciate that there will be times during the school year when inclement weather may result in students getting wet or muddy during outdoor lessons. For example, a caretaker’s nightmare is surely seeing muddy trainers traipsing through a school corridor, leaving a trail of sludgy footprints behind them. On these occasions, a suggested solution is for students to bring a spare clothing to change into after lessons. However, allocating curriculum time to changing should only be used in exceptional circumstances, especially when a recent Ofsted PE Research Review  has identified changing time as a key barrier in terms of students being sufficiently active during PE (Ofsted, 2022). Exploring this issue further, if we suggest that students are spending on average 20 minutes of a 60-minute timetabled PE lesson changing (10 minutes at the beginning and 10 minutes at the end), the time spent changing can amount to around 26 hours (or a third of curriculum time) over the course of a school year. Can you imagine a scenario where 20 minutes of every English or Maths lesson was set aside for students to set up and pack away their equipment? So, why do many schools persist in devoting a large percentage of their precious PE curriculum time to changing, especially when this practice may negatively impact on student wellbeing?

Student Wellbeing

Research from the Youth Sport Trust confirms that many children and young people are currently struggling with their physical and mental wellbeing (YST, 2023). When considering the totality of a student’s experience in PE, we must include the time spent in the changing rooms. Evidence suggests that changing room environments are potentially unhealthy spaces in terms of supporting young people’s emotional health and wellbeing (Butler, 2022; Gerdin, 2017; Moen et al., 2018). This is often the case for our most vulnerable students, where being required to change for PE can potentially lead to feelings of anxiety, body dissatisfaction and, ultimately, increased vulnerability. Whilst some schools offer suitable changing arrangements for vulnerable students, the reality in many schools is that students often end up changing in the toilets, which we argue is hardly a positive experience. Consequently, as much as we would love students to remember PE for its engaging curriculum offer, for some it is their negative experiences of changing that often provide the most vivid, and lasting, memories. Reflecting on this thought, is it time to ditch the practice of changing during PE and prioritise the wellbeing of all students over school image?

School Image

Speaking with teachers, a common reason cited for preventing students from attending school in PE kit is the perception that a blazer and tie are smarter and better represent the school in the local community. Whilst this certainly may be true in some cases, we argue that with the advances in the quality of sportswear, many schools now have smart PE kit. Furthermore, there is no research evidence that wearing PE kit negatively impacts on behaviour or academic performance.

Where schools permit students to wear PE kit, there may inevitably be a small number of students who push boundaries and are non-compliant with the school uniform policy. However, this is no different to current policies. A school would not give up on formal uniform policies because some students wore the wrong trousers or forgot their tie. We must demonstrate a resilience in this approach and remember the impact on students’ wellbeing when enforcing changes in uniform policy and practice.

Concluding thoughts

The practice of changing during PE lessons is a topic that requires careful consideration. While there may be arguments in favour of maintaining the status quo, such as hygiene and preserving the school’s image, we believe that it is of primary importance to prioritise the health and wellbeing of all students.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that allowing students to wear their PE kit to school can have positive effects, such as increased physical activity, decreased bullying opportunities and reduced anxiety. Research indicates that changing rooms can be potentially unhealthy spaces, particularly for vulnerable students, affecting their emotional well-being and hindering their perceptions of, and subsequent engagement in, PE. 

Surely the limited curriculum time allocated to PE should be maximised to ensure that students are learning through meaningful movement contexts. The time spent in changing rooms can significantly reduce this active learning time and consequently schools should explore alternative approaches to changing during PE lessons.

It is time to have an open and honest discussion about the best use of precious PE curriculum time and ensure that the health and wellbeing of all students is at the forefront of educational policies and practices. Moving forward, an important voice are the students themselves. It would be interesting to note their thoughts/what sits most comfortably with them? How do they feel about changing rooms and learning/activity time lost? More broadly, what and who do they feel needs ‘changing’ and why?


Get brand new resources, courses, research and insight delivered every week!