PE Refusers – Prevention is as important as the cure?

As a Head of PE in a working class comprehensive school in the North of England, I found that challenging those without kit and perennial PE refusers was becoming a vacuum for both my time and energy. Frustration, sympathy, exasperation and less commonly elation were all emotions associated with the daily battles with adolescents and being changed and ready to go in PE. I worked hard in phases of preparation to make informed decisions that I felt were going to improve the experiences of pupils within PE. I also tried my best to communicate consistently and calmly on a day to day basis with a consideration of the individual pupil case studies in front of us. During this blog, a summary of strategies that I have seen used successfully in my schools and in schools of trusted peers are provided to help drive up that compliance with PE kit policy.

Pupil & Parent Voice

As a head of PE committed to a busy extra-curricular programme that includes competition across our region, I have seen a wide range of PE kits on offer for pupils. From the sublime to the ridiculously dated to the downright impractical. Now, I appreciate the range of challenges involved with putting a PE kit range out there to parents. Implications around cost and supply can feel restrictive and once again, that word, frustrating. The perfect kit scenario is impossible to find. It is very much an element of compromise between all stakeholders including the decision makers within the organisation but most importantly pupils and parents too.

Pupils are the people that will be wearing the kit, their views are crucial and listening to a wide range of pupils is especially important. Ensure complete coverage of a school demographic is taken into account. Preferences in Key Stage 4 or 5 are likely to differ to those in Key Stage 3. Preferences between genders are almost certainly likely to differ and differences between from when we went to school to the class of 2023 are 100% going to occur. I found that being able to present options from a realistic pricing model was the most impactful. It also prevented the undoubted clamour from certain pupil sub-groups for ‘Footy Shirts’, ‘Nike Pro Shorts’ and ‘Coats in the Winter’. The balance between a PE kit being ‘Cool’ yet affordable and practical is tough but with so many kit suppliers out there, it is possible, especially if suppliers anticipate larger order sizes that can help keep prices low too.

On pricing, this is where parent involvement is key. Once again, ensure a complete demographic coverage of your school and consider too how much support can be provided for Pupil Premium and Looked after pupils. Feedback from parents can be disheartening. In my experiences, it was most challenging to put forward new PE kit options to parents of pupils that displayed the lowest engagement towards Physical Education. Now sitting on both sides of the fence as practitioner and parent, I appreciate that parents are simply after transparent communication with rationale behind decisions clear and with the best interests of the pupils at the heart.

The Non-Compliant Crew!

Participation barriers in Physical Education will always exist. Year groups and classes are so diverse with such a range in desires, wants and needs that in almost every class, there is likely to be a full time, part-time or intermittently non-compliant pupil. In some cases, the barrier can be removed quite easily and often this is achieved through clear communication between teacher, pupil and if required, parents. Allowing pupils to verbalise their feelings towards Physical Education can make finding a solution so much easier but consider the timings and locations of the conversations. I have witnessed colleagues attempting to find a solution during a register in front of an audience of 75 year 8s! Highly unlikely that many pupils are going to lower their guard in this scenario! Finding time without an audience once emotions have settled is much more likely to result in a positive outcome for all.

Consistency with non-compliance is crucial too. Across a department, it needs to be that united front, there is nothing worse than hearing ‘Well, Miss Smith lets us wear our own leggings’, ‘Mr Jones doesn’t put consequences for us not having the correct socks’. Help each other out and be prepared to fight the mini (or major) battles for the greater good of all. Consistently being seen to apply policy and sanctions to all is paramount to maintain the basic standards expected from the department and school but should not always be applied with steadfast rigidity. Now, this is where it does become challenging, especially as a policy maker or ‘applier’ in a school. One size fits all approaches are rarely successful in meeting the needs of ‘all’.

Fundamentally, what are we trying to achieve? For me, it is working towards developing the Physical Literacy of all pupils. Developing confidence and building motivation in young people to enjoy movement, exercise and physical activity. As such, there will be occasions where a slight bend in a rule for some pupils will be required to break down barriers. Body confidence, self-harm, abusive relationships with family members have all been witnessed by myself and I always tried to work with these pupils as opposed to adding bricks to the already significant barriers they faced. In addition, especially from a safeguarding and child protection perspective, ensure that you seek support and communicate with pastoral staff in school. This is for your protection as a teacher but also to enhance your chances of a positive outcome by being fully informed on a pupil and the intricacies of their personal situation.

Changing Room Cauldrons!

If the sports halls and playing fields are where battles are won, it is the changing rooms where the wars are won. As a department, there should be a collective effort from teachers and pupils to ensure that changing rooms serve their purpose. A place to get changed, registered and out of again in as close to that golden 10 minute target as possible. The changing room also needs to be a place where pupils feel safe, clean, hygienic and able to do what they need to do to participate in the lesson as swiftly as possible. Below are some quick-fire changing rooms tips that will hopefully help minimise instances of non-compliance in pupils:

  • Procedural consistency. Use of routines to start and end lessons are crucial. Pupils know what to expect and this will help create a calm environment that is conducive to getting pupils out and active ASAP.
  • Cleanliness. Pupils and teachers can both contribute to changing rooms being left as found from Period 1 to Period 6. Use and access to bins, borrowed kit returned, all low-level non-negotiables that help!
  • Accessible Spare Kit. Loathes me in a way to recommend this as it does increase work-load for somebody in the team but spare kit should be available and clean. Taking time to audit spare kit to ensure a full range of sizes is important too.
  • Indoor Voices. A phrase commonly used with my children but a phrase commonly required in changing rooms and that goes for staff too. Keeping that volume under control can be crucial to the comfort of all, especially those feeling anxious towards a changing room environment.

Curriculum – Fit for Purpose?

Perceptions of Physical Education are shaped by the experiences of pupils. From the changing rooms as mentioned above to the lesson by lesson journey of pupils through an academic year. Non-Compliance/defiance is undoubtedly impacted by what pupils are doing in lessons. The content. Does the curriculum content meet the needs of all pupils in your school context in 2023? Do all classes need to cover all activity areas? Is there benefit to certain groups working through the same activities week upon week in conditions that are going to adversely affect motivation towards Physical Education? Frequent and ongoing reviews of pupil engagement throughout all curriculum areas is vital. Rigidity in curriculum delivery and design can lead to pupil disillusionment, disenchantment and lower confidence levels for some pupils. Allowing flexibility for teaching staff to deliver activities and content in a style to suit most as opposed to few can lead to higher number of compliant and engaged pupils. This can also lead to empowerment of teachers and an element of trust that they are working with the pupils at the heart of their practice. Promoting a culture of sharing successes within departments, especially with previously non-compliant or challenging pupils can be positive in terms of sharing best practice. On this, speaking to teachers from other departments to hear strategies or success stories they have when working with individual case studies can also be invaluable.

To summarise, when the feelings of frustration begin to rise. Think of the 3C approach:

Calm, Consistent, Communication.

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