“What are we doing in PE today?” – The Relationship Between Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport

Guest Blog By Matthew Trowbridge

‘What are we doing in PE today?’ 

An age-old question asked by your most enthusiastic learners, yet also asked by your most cautious ones. The answer to this question can evoke great joy or genuine anxiety among a class of 30 students. This question is also asked by ESTYN/OFSTED and even among us, the PE professionals, amidst the ‘white noise’ of School Improvement Plans. Recently, with the launch of the “School Sport and Activity Action Plan” (2023), it has become even more important to clarify the role of PE within schools.

School Sport and Activity Action Plan

The School Sport and Activity Action Plan (2023) aims to promote physical activity and sports in school. It focused on increasing opportunities for physical activity, ensuring access to high-quality PE, and encouraging competitive sport.

The launch of the Action Plan has ignited debates on the role of Physical Education and has certainly sparked a backlash amongst the EduPE ‘Twittersphere’. Professionals express concern over the misinterpretation of our subject’s demands and outcomes, leading to longstanding questions that create division within PE teaching communities across the UK and beyond. We need to define our purpose and justify our status alongside other core subjects. For those of you who are experienced enough to remember, it echoes that of the funding and the intentions set out by Gordon Brown, circa 2007, around comments made that Physical Education needs to be more competitive, in preparation for the London 2012 legacy, but also to prepare children for winning and losing in business and employment. So many experienced and wonderful teachers I have met on my journey continually refer to educational initiatives working in cycles of fashion.

This blog aims to share personal experiences regarding the connection between Physical Education, physical activity, and sport, shedding light on their interrelations and perhaps more importantly their differences.

The Problem – MOVING from Tradition:

Many teachers may relate to the challenge of combating a perception of Physical Education, influenced by negative portrayals in media and Hollywood productions. The image depicts PE as “uncool”, or overly demanding, fostering a survival-of-the-fittest environment, where the strongest survive and thrive, whist the weak get hit in the face with a dodgeball.

Additionally, some parents also share this view, passing on their emotive perspectives to students, creating resistance to embracing change in the culture and holistic skills of what we are now trying to deliver in PE.

As a PE teacher, I often encounter individuals who confessed that they disliked PE due to feeling “not sporty”, revealing how the lines between sport, PE and physical activity have become blurred beyond recognition over the years. Most stakeholders struggle to articulate the difference between PE, sport, and physical activity.

Communicating to MOVE Minds

There is plenty of research that alludes to the meaningfulness and relevance of Physical Education, (Beni et al., 2017). Since the arrival of “Is PE in Crisis?” (Sullivan, 2020), personally, it seems to have unlocked ‘The Matrix’ of PE a little for me. I am really starting to see where we sit as a subject within a school community, but also how we have an opportunity to engage the disengaged with personally relevant learning that can develop character and provide a hook to nurture physical literacy – This is a topic that has divided some in the PE community. However, it is so pleasing to see many other teachers and leaders of our subject activating change in a more modern approach to PE, in reflections from Lee’s book, via social media and that of “Happiness Factories” (Mathe, 2022).

In doing so, I feel we need to be absolutely explicit, “community-cating” clearly to our stakeholders about what we are trying to achieve. Our department have created a collective INTENT based on our principles of MOVE. These intentions are based around a holistic view of PE, in developing physical literacy for lifelong health & well-being. Lessons are now based on a “Know, Show, Grow” approach, making PE more relevant and meaningful. It has helped us re-design our thinking around the goals and purpose of Physical Education.

Aligning anyone’s intentions to each of the sectors of physical education, physical activity and sport in a practical setting will provoke the minds of even the most experienced in our PE communities. Clarity amongst your team of staff, your line managers and your learners will illustrate your intentions and set a foundation to build lessons whereby all are striving to achieve the same goal. I believe this INTENT has been developed exceptionally well by our department, but I now need to communicate these intentions with the layers of individuals associated with the core of what we are aiming to deliver as a team of PE staff. This includes ensuring that all stakeholders understand the different vehicles we may be utilising to deliver this intent, whether that be PE, physical activity, or sport.

Once this is established…you must be ready to challenge tradition.  Communication is key!

The Challenge: MOVING Forward

To further over communicate the differences between PE, sport and physical activity, I developed a Venn Diagram graphic to help clarify the position of PE for the stakeholders in my setting.  I wanted to distinguish the unique differences and crossovers as we juggle to meet the needs of our learners during their time at the school This was humbly created to go on a draft website for our department, communicating to our stakeholders exactly what we are aiming to deliver. If we understand the purpose, we understand WHY we have created our INTENT.

Purpose is the reason ‘why’ we do what we do. Intention focusses attention to make things happen”. (Adams, 2021)

Peer reviewing with my trusted associate and friend, Jon Campbell, created a significantly busy and thought-provoking WhatsApp chat during the early start to the summer holidays which began challenging thinking of how to position these crossovers most appropriately. Try taking out the red commentary. Following the interaction between Jon and I, I’m certain this could also prove a worthwhile discussion to have with your departments; challenging their thinking and aligning the compass of your colleagues.  This process will create a chance for professional dialogue that will test thinking and negotiate any lingering dissonance.

An Anecdote to MOVE

Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport – Think of the three interrelated terms from the perspective of riding a bike. While we are young, we LEARN to ride the bike. We receive support, praise, feedback from the nearest and dearest around us. We watch demonstrations and connect with our leaders and peers.

When teaching my son, he started using a balance bike to develop his confidence and enjoyment. He was motivated by the challenge of being able to begin riding. He later evolved his experiences and skills to eventually learn how to pedal on a bike with stabilisers. Finally, his competence and confidence were refined to the point where balance and coordination had become skills that he could employ, flourishing on a stabiliser-free bike by the time he was 3 years old.

Both of us still realise there is a journey ahead, increasing his competence and confidence further to manipulate the bike over or around obstacles and avoid dangers, to learn how to brake in a timely fashion and eventually running a bike with gears. His experimental knowledge and understanding will continually be challenged in this development of mastery, as long as he remains motivated to do so and values the place that cycling plays in his life. He could develop further declarative knowledge of how to do an M-Check for bike safety, or how to fix a puncture. He may even acquire cycling proficiency qualifications to lead others in a safe and enjoyable experience, whilst being respectful to those other users of roads or shared paths. The sky is the limit.

This anecdote demonstrates the development of one child’s skills in my care, through the delivery of cycling as a physical activity. Although, through careful guidance, support, and direction, I can provide what PE can holistically create for our learners, holistic development through physical literacy. Are you starting to see the difference?

MOVE back to PE!

Is this not a direct reflection of what we are doing in PE? Not with cycling, but with the learning experiences. In raising the competence, confidence, knowledge, understanding, whilst fostering motivation and delivering an activity with value. The direction of this valuation of cycling will depend on how it is used in his life. Am I doing this for him to be an elite cyclist?  No! I am doing this so that he can engage with lifelong physical activity, of something I feel that every child has a rite of passage to ride a bike, exploring new territory with friends as they grow old. Or even to have competitions of who can ride the fastest or jump the highest – all those experiences that live long in our memories that many of us did growing up.

By doing this in the early stages of his learning, he would begin to appreciate the enjoyment and benefits of cycling. Physical activity is “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure” (WHO, 2022). This would be demonstrated by him going out with friends to ride, enjoying the social, physical, and mental benefits of cycling as a package deal. Maybe even riding to work when he becomes an adult.

With increased confidence and competence, he may choose to direct his efforts with more discipline, taking up cycling, in any format, as a competitive sport, participating in local Time Trials and progressing to more structured competitions. This would reflect a movement capacity for healthy competition – Sport.

All three of those have traits of Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport, and would not be too dissimilar to the structure of a scheme of learning that you could create for cycling, or even design in any other activity.

Now, go back to the Venn diagram and consider what your outcomes are in the design of your learning intentions. Before finalising your planning or decision-making, you should also consider your audience. If you are fortunate enough to be able to utilise class pathways and personalities, such as those identified in the “Under the Skin” (2014) report highlighted within Sullivan (2021), your delivery can be specifically aimed to the needs of your learners. Giving your PE meaning, gives PE meaning to others!

Our Delivery and Implementation to MOVE

One way we have tried to combat the clarity of outcomes and delivery in our school, is allowing the freedom for learners to engage competitive and health & well-being lessons in Year 7. Our 2 x competitive lessons a fortnight very much follow a traditional delivery, but with the Concept Curriculum at the heart of the learning. These provide our learners with the opportunity to engage with physical literacy and create an environment for movement capacity for healthy competition. The 3rd lesson is a health & well-being lesson, where mixed gender classes participate in movement focused activities, such as dance or fitness training, fostering movement for lifelong activity and health, in non-competitive situations.

As learners progress through our school, based on our experiences, and that of learner voice activities, they are provided with a pathways approach to learning, whereby the activities and outcomes are geared around their needs; competition, lifelong activity, or challenge and enjoyment. This is not revolutionising in the PE world, but part of the small steps we are taking to alter a culture to meet the needs of every student. For context, the Concept Curriculum is being rolled out to both Year 7 & 8 this year in a bid to meet the demands and expectations of the changes in the Curriculum for Wales.

I have a vision of utilising many of the models-based practices specified to specific classes as highlighted through a “PE Teacher Toolkit” in a blog by Swaithes (2022).

MOVE to the Conclusion

I saw this diagram as something I wanted to create to utilise the great work of the Association for Physical Education (AfPE) document on the definitions of Physical Education, Physical Activity, and School Sport, evolving this text table to make it digestible to any person of any experience. After all, we are altering a culture, historically littered with negative or inconsistent experiences at best, of what PE. We know too that the culture we create will have a direct and terminal impact on the attitudes held by our learners towards our subject. Figley (1985) found that the most frequently mentioned positive and negative attitudes to PE were directly related to the teacher or the curriculum, therefore we must work continually to get both right.

This is not so much of a shift from the terms used, but an evolution of this literature so that it aligns more closely with. the direction of modern PE. It has been fantastic to network with many cross-border colleagues in recent years, since online meetings has brought us even closer together, discussing the direction in which PE seems to be heading. There are so many innovators out there whose aim is making PE more meaningful and relevant. This evolution has been further accelerated in Scotland and Wales, who have been pioneering curriculum reform. From a personal perspective, the Health & Wellbeing Area of Learning Experience could really benefit with this clarity, outlining the potential for lessons to be centred around physical education, physical activity, and school sport to meet the needs of the holistic progression steps.

AfPE (2015)

Overseeing the intent, implementation and impact of a concept-based curriculum allows me to cater and aspire to meet the centre of the Venn Diagram I created. Our MOVE intent serves as our compass, guiding our department towards the bullseye and customising our delivery to suit our learners’ needs. Although we have not fully reached our target, each step brings us closer and more consistent. Like skilled archers, we practice aiming for the centre through thoughtful pedagogy and content decisions to ensure desired outcomes. Emphasising quality assurance processes, department CPD, sharing best practices, responding to learner voice, fostering a sense of community, and productive concept-based faculty meetings, we collaboratively strive to transform our establishment’s culture and achieve our shared goal together to MOVE forward.

To conclude, my interpretation and evolution from AfPE’s three lineages of PE, physical activity, and school sport in our lessons are as follows:

  • Physical activity is the most superficial form of Physical Education. Getting learners moving and enjoying being physically active. It is a direct requirement of our basic human needs, providing us with a sense of belonging, an opportunity to engage with others, and promoting movement for physical benefits. Our movement for lifelong activity and decision-making around future health.
  • School sport is about peak performance and winning, whilst appreciating the values of losing too. There are avenues into sport through either angle of physical activity or physical education, specialising an individual’s skills and fitness for success and healthy competition. These are evidenced in much of the extra-curricular fixtures and competitions we prepare for and optionally partake in.
  • Physical education further deepens the curiosity of these activities, often used as a precursor in childhood development to sport or being physically active. Providing learners with the confidence, competence, knowledge & understanding is pivotal to them being motivated to engage with and value any physical activity or sport in their future.  PE is also about appreciating the value in what underpins performance, as well as the affective and the reflective journey our learners will engage with in doing so, and its impact on their lives. High quality PE will aim to develop the whole individuals’ character and mind, with learning experiences, physical literacy, and movement at the beating heart of it.


  • Adams, J. (2021). Are purpose and intention the same thing? [online] Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/purpose-intention-same-thing-juliet-adams [Accessed 29 Jul. 2023].
  • Association for Physical Education (2015) Definition of Physical Activity, Physical Education and School Sport *extracted from AfPE’s Health Position Paper 2015 Available at: https://www.afpe.org.uk/physical-education/wp-content/uploads/Definition_of_PA_PE__School_Sport.pdf.
  • Beni, S., Fletcher, T. and Ní Chróinín, D. (2017). Meaningful Experiences in Physical Education and Youth Sport: A Review of the Literature. Quest, 69(3), pp.291–312. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/00336297.2016.1224192.
  • Figley, G.E. (1985) Determinants of Attitudes Toward Physical Education. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education. Vol. 4, No. 4; pp. 229-240
  • Mathe, P. (2022). Happiness Factories: A success-driven approach to holistic Physical Education. John Catt.
  • Sullivan, L. (2021). Is physical education in crisis? : Leading a much-needed change in physical education. Radstock: Scholary.
  • Swaithes, W. (2022). Nurturing Students to Flourish in PE. [online] PE Scholar. Available at: https://www.pescholar.com/insight/nurturing-students-to-flourish-in-pe/ [Accessed 29 Jul. 2023].
  • ‌World Health Organization (2022). Physical activity. [online] World Health Organization. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity.

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