Should life skill development be a focus in PE?

By Will Swaithes and Jon Campbell

Back in 2008 I (Will Swaithes) was experimenting with ways to hook more learners into physical education (PE) and to provide more meaningful and relevant learning gains. I wanted more than just accurate replication of skills and outwitting opponents to be the value-add for all young people in PE, but that seemed to account for at least 90% of curriculum time and anything else seemed more luck than strategic intent.

S.E.C.R.I.T life skill development in pe

The QCA’s Personal, Learning and Thinking (PLTS) Framework became a great way for me to hook all learners and one that, as an AST, I supported many other schools and subjects to explore and implement. The S.E.C.R.I.T life skills we looked to embed within our pe curriculum to discuss, explore and consider transference to other areas of life were:

  • Self managers
  • Effective participants
  • Creative thinkers
  • Reflective learners
  • Independent enquirers
  • Team workers
life skills

Transferable life skills.

But the development of transferable life skills in PE is a topic probably best described as polarised within the PE community – especially considering the purpose of PE itself isn’t universally agreed upon.  Corina et al. (2023) explore the views held by PE teachers of teaching life skills development through PE experiences and found that, generally, teachers held a positive appreciation for the development of these valuable life skills within their pedagogy and curriculum. The teachers within the study identified 27 different life skills that might be taught within their programmes through implicit or explicit means. 

“The most frequently mentioned life skills were communication skills, resilience, teamwork, leadership, organisational skills, problem solving and decision making, confidence and self-esteem, social skills, sportspersonship, time management, goal setting, and empathy. In addition to the frequently mentioned life skills, there were less frequently mentioned life skills which included work ethic, manners and respect, personal responsibility, initiative, and the ability to handle pressure” (Corina et al., 2023, p793).

What about the ‘bread and butter’ of physical education?

With the ‘bread and butter’ of PE being the development of physical competency, should there be a focus on life skills, or would this risk watering down or devaluing PE as a subject?  I (Jon Campbell) cast my mind to Greg Dryer’s (2021) articulate and thought provoking blog in which he critiques the transferability of life skills claimed to be learned in PE, and that continually confusing teachers through the adoption of agendas can negatively impact the quality of PE students receive. The notion of ‘staying in our lane’, as Greg phrases it, is a very powerful one indeed.

So without straying from a core purpose of developing physical competency and a positive relationship with movement, what role might PE play in life, character and emotional skills development? After all, PE is physical education, and according to Martin Luther King, the “true purpose of education” is “intelligence and character”. As reported by the Education Endowment Foundation (2023), “There is promising evidence for teaching children emotional awareness and relationship management, but promoting self-care is currently under-researched in the field of education”.

Interestingly, a research report (Department for Education, 2021) found that grade improvements in PE contributed to an increase of ~£12k in life earnings. In this report, only 2 subjects contributed towards a bigger marginal effect. And this is not the first time research has found involvement in sport is correlated with higher earnings. Back in 2013 Sheffield Hallam University found “the average graduate who played sport while studying earns £5,824 (18 per cent) more than those who did not” (Matthews, 2013; Universities, B., 2013). 

Lifetime earnings

Source: Department for Education (2021) GCSE attainment and lifetime earnings report 

Teaching life skills and ‘transfer

So what is it about PE or experiences provided by it that could explain this marginal effect? What could it be about exam or coursework context in PE qualifications that impact earning potential in the wider world? My (Jon Campbell) initial guess would be the practical experience of the theory content – goal setting, visualisation etc which are perhaps not practised within other subjects so explicitly. Consider for a moment the relatively low position of English in the chart – a subject along with Maths which generally forms the ultimate measure of school performance.

We would suggest it unlikely that schemes of work that increased the sport specific skills of a student to perform in a football or netball assessment would translate to higher earnings in the course of a lifetime. Could it therefore be the ‘life skills’ that we presume to develop in PE showing their worth? Is this evidence of transfer? If we were to attribute the development of these skills as a product of the PE environment, should we not take the opportunity to engage in pedagogies, curriculum and assessment that address and teach life skills implicitly and explicitly alongside the central mission of developing physical competence? 

Character and virtues

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (2022) Framework for Character Education in Schools frames life skills and traits through intellectual, moral, civic and performance virtues; the theory being that the development and demonstration of these virtues are essential for flourishing individuals and society. 

students basic psychological virtues

Adapted from The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (2022) Framework for Character Education in Schools (page 9) 

Within this framework exists a central tenant that character education, and the traits and skills it seeks to foster, is the responsibility of all involved in a school setting, and that:

  • Character is fundamental: it is the basis for human and societal flourishing;
  • Character is largely caught through role-modelling and emotional contagion: committed leadership, school culture and ethos are therefore central;
  • Character should also be taught: direct teaching of character provides the rationale, language and tools to use in developing character elsewhere in and out of school;
  • Character is educable: it is not fixed and the virtues can be developed. Its progress can be measured holistically;
  • Good character is the foundation for improved attainment, better behaviour and increased employability, but most importantly, flourishing societies.

Interpersonal, intellectual and intrapersonal

These points considered, it could be determined that the school experience should not just be organised or viewed as a dispensary of knowledge categorised into subject headings, but a genuine attempt at a system in which young people develop and thrive as individuals and as part of their wider society. The development of character and the acquisition of life skills has to be a continuously lived experience, of which all aspects of school life should seek to contribute. PE then, as with all subjects, could be well positioned to contribute towards this through appropriate pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. Park et al. (2017) postulated that schools have a responsibility to promote more than just cognitive ability in children, and provide compelling evidence that character is plural and consists of: 

  • Interpersonal character (eg. self-control, gratitude, social intelligence) 
  • Intellectual character (eg zest, curiosity) 
  • Intrapersonal (eg. academic adherence, grit).

Across the three studies discussed within the paper, it was found that positive peer relations were most consistently predicted by a student’s interpersonal character, participation in class activities and units of work were best predicted by intellectual characteristics, and report card grades and tracking data would be best predicted by a student’s intrapersonal character. As PE teachers, we want our students to thrive and find meaning within the subject. With Park et al. supporting a tripartite taxonomy of character in the school context, we would be wise to consider how our provision impacts the interpersonal, intellectual and intrapersonal character of those within our class during our PE lessons. 

Young peoples life skills

Deloitte (2023) revealed that many Gen z workers lack soft skills and often need training for them to be further developed. Difficulties with communication and low resilience contribute to higher levels of stress and anxiety. Reports like these continue to build the case for improving the provision for ‘life’ skills within education. Organisations like Barclays are doing their bit to influence in this space, for example with their free employability and financial education programme called LifeSkills. 

“There’s nothing more personal than the physical”

How does one demonstrate intelligence without the capacity or skills to do so? In a simple PE context, how could a player organise and direct their team to take advantage of an identified tactical weakness, if they lacked the critical thinking, reasoning, civility, leadership and communication to convey the message with the confidence that convinces teammates to commit to an action? From a relationship with physical activity perspective, how does a person with knowledge of local opportunities take advantage of them if they lack confidence to engage or the judgement to select activities that are meaningful? All levels of engagement in physical activity, whether in PE or in independent activities, require students to demonstrate aspects of character to simply participate. After all, as Dr Vicky Randall says, “there’s nothing more personal than the physical’. Achieving success, whatever that might look like, might require an entirely different set of character skills to simply participating. To actually experience winning, some skills or traits (which may not be entirely perceived as positive or desirable in many other settings!) might be needed.

Take Roy Keane – a brilliant footballer and leader; many footballers over the years have pointed to Keane being a prime example of a champion and captain, but Keane’s inability to control his frustration often led to moments of anger, with outbursts leading to actions with consequences for his team.

Cristiano Ronaldo embodies self belief but has been seen previously to become frustrated when a teammate scores instead of him.

Ronda Rousey was a pioneer in women’s MMA, but one exploration of her character suggested that ‘her inability to accept defeat and the inevitable criticism of failing when competing on the grandest stage is almost as sad as her accomplishments are significant’. She once blamed a defeat on a gumshield instead of the overpowering efforts of her opponent, thus attributing defeat to unstable external factors instead of factors within her control such as her skill as a fighter and her work rate. However, Rousey’s attributions also meant that she had an unwavering confidence that she would and should win every fight. Perhaps if other skills such as self-evaluation had been developed, she would have been a greater fighter by understanding what she needed to do to improve. T

he aggressive and confrontational Keane, the easily-frustrated Ronaldo, and the over-confident Rousey had what it took to be incredible champions in a sports context, but may have been challenging individuals to work in an office job. 

Concept curriculum

But what evidence is there that PE can facilitate the development of life skills? Brunsdon (2023) explores how a PE teacher delivered a curriculum which explicitly sought to teach character through the virtues detailed by the Jubilee Centre (2022) and pedagogies of affect (Kirk, 2020). The study acknowledges the challenges of designing and implementing a PE programme around character development, but also highlighted physical education and the positive impact it can have. Meanwhile, our Concept Curriculum has supported hundreds of schools to ‘swing the pendulum’ towards big ideas and overarching concepts that can be explicitly developed through PE. For example, resilience through net/ wall games in year 8 or problem solving through OAA in year 9 or effective teams through invasion games in year 10. Meanwhile, increasing interest in Models-based Practice highlights the value of developing personal and social responsibility skills through TPSR or thinking players through TGfU.  

Teaching personal and social responsibility

Whilst the jury is definitely still out on whether these life skills can be developed in PE and, as described by Don Hellison, “taken beyond the gym”, We (Will and Jon) remain firm believers that they are incredibly useful skills to explicitly learn about in and through PE. If you want to read more we recommend A Qualitative Investigation of Teachers’ Experiences of Life Skills Development in Physical Education (Cronin et al., 2022) and the work of Don Hellison on Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR); with the impact of TPSR explored more recently in a PE Scholar blog. In terms of those ‘SECRIT’ life skills mentioned earlier, we now tend to talk more about the P.R.I.C.E.L.E.S.S skills that a rich PE experience can promote and support. 

life skills development in pe

The PE national curriculum

Whilst we definitely do not want to change the number one focus of PE from improving movement skills and confidence, there are direct and obvious links between this and:

  1. The PE national curriculum which “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”.
  2. Ofsted’s personal development strand of inspection that focuses on “SMSC, Fundamental British Values, careers guidance, healthy living, citizenship, equality and diversity and preparation for the next stage” of education or employment (see slide 28 here
  3. The Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education (RSHE) statutory guidance that has required all schools to deliver against since 2021. As part of my work for Youth Sport Trust, I created and shared the following mapping document which highlights just how many of these important areas could and should be taught through PE:Relationships Sex and Health Education
  4.  Our quest for more physical literacy informed PE provision
  5. The idea of Meaningful PE.

In summary

Whatever your view on the responsibility of PE to develop life skills, character, or whatever terminology you choose to use, it’s obvious to us that many of these skills are needed for students to further learn, engage more fully, and discover relevance in the subject. In a future where we increasingly carry the power of all knowledge in our pocket (on a smartphone) and where robotics/ AI increasingly influence the working and wider world, we must focus on the unique skills that make us more human – intra- and interpersonal skills. To that extent, the opportunities to experience moments which call for life skills in PE units of work are ever present. This is something that as PE teachers we could take advantage of and actively plan for within our provision. Whether or not these skills are transferable directly from PE to wider life might very well be difficult to measure, but the opportunities to identify, encourage and celebrate them during teachable moments is undeniable and may also serve to hook reluctant learners.

For anyone thinking about ways to provide that extra value add for all young people, we would encourage you to consider the following reflective questions:

  1. What is the most valuable learning you can give all students from PE?
  2. What would most students currently say is the purpose of PE and how well does this match with your intent?
  3. How can you retain maximal minutes moving in PE but still contribute to improved mental/ emotional and social wellbeing? 
  4. How can you ensure life skills are enhanced through the physical and do not replace it?
  5. How can your ethos, your hidden curriculum, your displays, your use of changing times, assemblies and tutor time contribute towards an attitudinal shift amongst staff and students?
  6. How will you know if what you are doing is having an impact?  


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