National Curriculum for PE

PE Evolution in England

During my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur to deliver at FOBISIA PE and Sport Conference, as well as recent appearances at PE conferences here in England, I have capitalised on a few opportunities to discuss and reflect on our current national curriculum for PE here in England. This short post aims to summarise and signpost to useful insight around physical education and suggest ways that PE curriculum leaders could consider to ‘get out in front’ of policy to better meet the need of all young people.

National Curriculum History

The first National Curriculum was introduced here in England as part of the Education Reform Act in 1988. Programmes of Study were drafted, refined and re-worked in 1994-95, 1997-99, 2007-08 and most recently by Michael Gove in 2012-14. Published in draft format in 2013 and finalised for first teaching in September 2014, I remember a handful of key changes on the surface for PE:

  • Reduced prescription – the national curriculum document for PE was significantly slimmed down from the previous 2008 iteration which gave increased freedom to local leaders of PE to adapt their offer to better meet the needs of their context (although in reality I am not sure much transformative change happened)
  • AwoL – ‘Assessment without Levels‘ meant the removal of what always felt like a pretty meaningless number being assigned to each student to represent their progress in PE and seemed to centre around giving about a 5c by the end of Year 9 to most students and working back from that in Key Stage 3 and then up from that in Key Stage 4. In my experience it meant very little to staff or students BUT without a clear way forward to replace this system for PE we now face a very fragmented landscape in terms of what and how assessment is ‘done’ in core PE
  • Expectation for dance through to the end of Key Stage 3
  • Outdoor Adventurous Activities (OAA) in Key Stages 2-4

PE Programmes of Study

In September 2013 the Department of Education published our statutory programmes of study and attainment targets for primary and secondary (key stages 1-4) here. The overall purpose and four aims are the same across all key stages:

Purpose of study

A high-quality physical education curriculum inspires all pupils to succeed and excel in competitive sport and other physically demanding activities. It should provide opportunities for pupils to become physically confident in a way which supports their health and fitness. Opportunities to compete in sport and other activities build character and help to embed values such as fairness and respect.


  1. develop competence to excel in a broad range of physical activities
  2. are physically active for sustained periods of time
  3. engage in competitive sports and activities
  4. lead healthy, active lives
Source: DfE National curriculum in England: physical education programmes of study (2013)

In addition to this, there is a brief breakdown of subject content expected within each of the key stages with the following general focus:

  • Key Stage 1 – increased competence and confidence across a broad range of activities due to improved fundamental movement skills via opportunities to compete, co-operate and face challenges.
  • Key Stage 2 – increased linking and sequencing of skills to enable pupils to enjoy communicating, collaborating and competing with each other as well as evaluating performance. By the end of Key Stage 2 all pupils should also be able to swim 25 metres, use a range of strokes and be water safe.
  • Key Stage 3 – embedding the physical development and skills learnt at primary to become more expert in techniques and application across different sports and physical activities. Amongst opportunities to develop tactics, strategies, advanced dance techniques, problem solving in OAA and analysis of performance there is also an expectation around taking part in competitive sports and activities outside of school (i.e. in the local community).
  • Key Stage 4 – tackling complex and demanding physical activities to promote personal fitness and promote an active, healthy lifestyle is the focus alongside continued participation in competitive sports and activities beyond school.

Importantly, whilst suggested activities are hinted towards within the document, there is no prescription of which specific activities should be taught and hence schools are free to choose the best vehicles for learning given their local context. The following key areas do feature though:

  1. Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS)
  2. Team and Individual Games
  3. Athletics
  4. Gymnastics
  5. Dance
  6. Outdoor Adventurous Activities (OAA)
  7. Swimming
  8. Observing and Analysing Performance

The PE Expert Group produced a guidance on assessment booklet in 2015 to help with interpretation of the national curriculum which can be found here.

2016 also saw big changes in terms of assessment reforms but, as this only affects GCSE, AS and A level subjects and we know less than 20% of children choose examination PE as an option, I would argue that this actually served as a massive distraction to ensuring core physical education (i.e. the curriculum time that every child is entitled to as part of their education in all key stages) is fit for purpose for all.

UK National Curriculum

Very often I hear people refer to the UK curriculum and I am lucky enough to work with British International schools but I think it is important to remember that there is no such thing as a UK curriculum. We have very different curricula in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of these has been developed and overhauled at different moments in time and as a consequence been influenced by different socio-political pressures of that time. I would argue that the version for England was produced during the era of London hosting the Olympic Games and hence competition is a very strong feature whereas the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was published in 2019 with a more holistic outlook and recognition of health and wellbeing as a central feature that all teachers need to consider more thoroughly. Wales launched its draft curriculum in 2022 and, similar to Scotland, ‘Health and Wellbeing’ was a central feature (Area of Learning and Experience) with physical literacy significantly informing the design of the PE aspects. Northern Ireland also saw some curriculum updates in 2020 to give greater flexibility to schools and increase the focus on ‘thinking skills and personal capabilities’.

PE Policy and Practice around the world

If you are looking to create a ‘world leading’ PE curriculum offer for your school then I would encourage you to consider cherry picking some of the best features from different curricula from around the world that can be applied within the constraints of compliance. In 2021 I took the opportunity to discuss and capture insight around PE policy and practice from a range of different countries – access our blog series on ‘Global Perspectives of PE Policy and Practice’ here.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the future of PE to ensure it meets the needs of all students in all settings as we know the damaging effects of a poor experience and how long they can last for some young people but we also know the challenges of building a truly 21st century offer within the restraints of marginalisation, logistics and teacher expertise.

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