Should Physical Education be a ‘Core’ Subject?

PE as a Core Subject

Introduction

The idea that Physical Education (PE) should become a core subject across schools in the UK is being increasingly debated, partly due to the lasting effects of COVID-19, and the worrying physical activity levels and general health and wellbeing of the population and children specifically. This insight post aims to summarise the findings of research dissertation submitted as part of the award of BA(Hons) Education and Care.

The Issue

The PE National Curriculum has significantly changed throughout history which is comparatively unique in comparison to existing ‘core’ subjects. The PE National Curriculum has continually evolved to meet the needs of an ever changing society. The purpose of PE previously has consisted of producing stronger men ready for war, improve general post-war fitness and becoming physically confident to participate in a range of sports, with many seeing the future aim of PE to nurture Physical Literacy and engagement in physical activity throughout life. There is a physical and mental health crisis on the horizon, if not already here, requiring immediate intervention. The World Health Organisation (WHO) (2020) state that 80% of adults are insufficiently active, as well as The Royal College of Psychiatrists (2021) observing a record number of children (190,271) referred for mental health services.

Evidence has shown that physical activity habits are formed in the early stages of childhood. Through a PE lens, Kelder et al., (1994) highlight that health-related behaviours formed during youth are maintained into adulthood. Okely et al., (2001) also describe that individuals who establish strong fundamental movement skills in childhood are increasingly likely to be active in later life.

The issue is, our current PE offer is not currently meeting the needs of all pupils and is failing short of promoting lifelong engagement in physical activity. It is essential that we, as educators, ensure our children are set on a positive health and wellbeing trajectory from the earliest ages. When value is placed on PE, it implies that it is an important part of school and of life. There have been a plethora of calls for change in the PE curriculum at secondary level, however, if PE is implicitly deemed ‘not important’ and children have poor experiences at a young age, how will we ever make PE meaningful for them? How will those children find an activity for themselves? Will they become fit and healthy adults? By the time children have reached secondary school, habits and attitudes have been formed and it can be assumed it is too late to change them by then. Even now, as an active adult that lives and breathes PE, if I have ‘work’ to do, I’ll skip the gym that week, or delay going for that walk; are we setting up our children to do the same in the future?

The purpose of this research was to explore the current value placed on PE in a Primary School in the North East. It explores the perceptions of primary teachers, the value they place on PE and their thoughts regarding elevating PE to a core subject.

Educators Views

The participants within this research were all primary teachers, all of whom had similar amounts of training within PE in comparison to other foundation subjects, however they did not feel confident teaching, assessing or planning for PE. They also outlined how the PE training they received provided ideas for one or two lessons but when asked to produce a unit of work, they struggled. As well as this, PE on the whole was seen as a subject that ‘lends itself well’ to pulling children out for interventions to catch up on other academic areas. Would schools take children out of English or Maths lessons for PE interventions? One participant raised the question of what PE would actually gain if it were a core subject; it already receives increased funding and on the whole more time than any other foundation subject. Throwing more time and money at a subject won’t fix it, primary PE needs an overhaul. All participants shared how their experience of PE as a child has affected their attitudes towards the subject now, supporting the idea that these experiences transfer over. Positive experiences as a child is more likely to result in healthy active adults, conversely negative and traumatic experiences in PE may result in barriers to adult participation in sport and physical activity.

What does high quality PE look like and how would it be assessed?

The benefits of physical activity and exercise well known, yet Morgan and Hansen (2008) describe how many PE lessons placed importance on the sole objective being movement; resembling fitness sessions and in turn, putting children off physical activity. This demonstrates how positive and meaningful PE experiences are essential in promoting lifelong engagement in physical activity. These experiences should engage and foster a love of learning and being active for all pupils, and should look beyond just sport to include wider physical activities, providing opportunities for holistic development.

This is supported by Brown and Payne (2009) who outline the need to develop meaningful experiences in PE stating that it should involve more than a purely cognitive, technical or ‘fitness-as-an-outcome’ approach; they suggest that meaningful PE will encourage greater physical activity throughout an individual’s life. Harris and Cale (2018) state that high quality physical education has been shown to:

  • contribute to children’s confidence;
  • promote self-esteem;
  • improve social development;
  • develop a sense of fairness;
  • reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression;
  • benefit cognitive function and academic achievement;
  • encourage school attendance and engagement.

PE can be so much more than simply being active or playing sports. A vast amount of primary schools utilise external coaching companies to deliver their PE curriculum through playing sports; is this a valuable use of funding?

If PE were to become a core subject, it may increase the bureaucracy of the subject and therefore effect the quality of teaching and learning? English and Maths already see huge amounts of planning and assessing, with the data from those subjects defining the reputation of schools and staff in some instances; would PE be the same? Participants in the study also outlined how it is difficult to accurately assess children in communication, leadership and wider characteristics, and that PE may rely on physical capability data for tangible results. English and Maths sees a standardised assessment programme to monitor progress, if PE were to become core, could we see something similar in PE?

Challenges

Whilst most primary schools across the country pledge to achieve the recommended two hours of PE a week, in reality, this isn’t the case. Schools are under immense pressure to achieve results and evidence progress in other curriculum areas and because of this, PE time is often sacrificed or disrupted. Whilst the timetabled time may be there, but it is not necessarily protected or high quality. PE is still viewed as ‘running around’, ‘playing tag’ or ‘throwing dodgeballs at each other’, and not as a respected, valued part of the curriculum which offers a unique opportunity to promote the holistic development of the child. As discussed before, PE can be so much more. PE appears to be the subject that is ‘skipped’ to practise a year group song, rehearse a performance or sit in an assembly, ask yourself the question about if English or Maths would be left out for those reasons. We’re sending the wrong messages to children from the earliest ages. Understandably, primary schools are extremely busy places and there needs to be time found somewhere for extra-curricular opportunities, when PE is protected as much as English and Maths, we may then then see a culture change in PE, and begin to capitalise on the benefits of regular engagement in physical activity.

PE as a Core Subject Pilot

As part of this research we proposed and trialled PE as a core subject for 1 week, to get a feel for what this may look like in practice. This process was very revealing in line with Ennis (2006) teachers agreed that PE was important but when the reality in practice of what PE as a core subject would look like in relation to timetabled daily lessons it was met with great resistance.

For many, the benefits of PE are still hidden and people are apprehensive to change. Teachers were reluctant to disrupt the status quo to include more opportunities to be physically active throughout the school day. Which highlights how ingrained current perceptions are around the subject comparative value against other subjects, practices and routines.

Conclusion

Whilst PE should have increased value within primary schools, labelling it as a core subject may not add any ‘tangible’ benefits. However, in order for PE to be a valued and respected as an integral part of the curriculum, giving it the core status may be the only way to do so. This research also includes recommendations for further development of primary PE, including improved teacher training and a full revamp of the National Curriculum.

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