Culture – Are our primary schools fit for physical purpose?

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I abandoned the bitter-sweet, reward-frustration cocktail of full-time teaching in 2016. Since then, I have visited and taught in more than 60 primary schools with an ambitious physical fitness vision. In this time, I have observed and interacted with school leaders, teachers, teaching assistants, lunch & kitchen teams, office staff, site teams and more.

I have witnessed first-hand significant inconsistencies in the value placed upon fitness development in the primary school setting. The blame does not sit squarely at the school gates. It must be shouldered by us all. As society becomes ever more aware of the benefits of improved physical fitness on overall wellbeing, why do these inconsistencies remain? In this blog, I will outline reasons I believe have combined to create school cultures which are not fit for physical purpose.

1. Heavily Compromised School Halls

Whilst there may be available playgrounds, playing fields and all-weather surfaces, in reality, a fit-for-purpose indoor facility is crucial for high-quality physical learning for every child. 

Most primary school halls are increasingly compromised. Assemblies, lunch time, lunch time set up and pack down, wrap-around provision, school plays and concerts, parents’ evenings, guest speakers and presentations will take place in the average school hall. Every single day the lunch team will demand full use, probably from 11.30-13.15. The Nativity season, examinations and more will all out-muscle physical education lessons for use of this setting.

Lunch chairs and tables are stacked high at the side, along with a laptop trolley covered in wiring. The school piano and stool absorb one corner. Numerous noticeboard presentations (that do not take kindly to being hit by balls) feature on every side. Wall bars, often unused, feature along one side. Wrap-around club toys are stacked high, alongside more unexplained props and hazards. 

Added to which, the general state of most school hall floors is depressing. A thick film of dust laminates a once sparkling surface, with an even greater build-up of dust behind all mats, benches and equipment situated around the outside. Mashed peas, sweetcorn and other foods that have beaten the hurried lunch time sweep are all ingrained in this floor. I have completed the post lunch time sweep in probably 30 different primary schools. There is never time to do this effectively. the residue of 120+ lunches builds, day by day. 

Contrast this space with a single purpose physical education hall, gymnastics, dance or fitness venue, where every aspect exists to facilitate physical learning.

2. Unrealistic Expectations on Classroom Teachers

I do not wish to push too hard against those who believe we can upskill all teachers to deliver a high-quality physical education. Classroom practitioners who make time to get changed and take an active role in physical lessons are priceless. I recognise many skills in teaching are transferable, and I believe firmly in a growth mindset. But I also believe passion, expertise, energy and headspace are essential in the promotion of any meaningful culture.

I completed an exercise and sports based degree at St Luke’s College, Exeter University. At this time, this was largely a teacher training college. Many of my friends here were trainee primary school teachers. I am certain these committed students did not choose to become primary school teachers with the teaching of physical education and fitness at the forefront of their career aspirations. Those who did are unlikely to be afforded time and headspace for this additional responsibility. In my experience, primary school teachers are generally flat out from when they arrive in school to when they go home with a heavy bag of books to mark and lessons to plan. 

Right now, the most realistic solution to delivering physical learning in most primary school settings may well be the hybrid model. Part classroom teacher, part subject specialist. I can support a model where the class teacher delivers a simple physical fitness curriculum. Regardless or our own sporting intentions, we all hold a personal relationship with fitness and health. Where this hybrid delivery exists, with whom does the subject vision sit? The PE lead is also probably a full-time classroom teacher.

3. Curriculum Currency

Within the wider remit of the school environment, safeguarding is, and for some time now has been rightfully in pole-position as of paramount importance. I would position mental health and wellbeing in second place. In curriculum terms, literacy and numeracy are the big-hitting subjects. Children’s learning, particularly in the mornings, is hardwired into these two areas. One key way in which primary schools are measured externally is through children’s attainment and progress within literacy and numeracy.

What comes next in terms of curriculum priority is open to debate. I have enjoyed enough conversations with colleagues to appreciate the case every department lead will make for more time and value to be placed upon their subject area. I have spoken with headteachers about the relative benefits of drama/music and school productions in comparison with physical education, physical activity and school sport. There is a compelling case for the personal, social and emotional development opportunities arising from these productions. 

But there is something tangibly unique about physical learning and fitness. Children with improved physical fitness have greater cognition and readiness to learn, greater physical literacy and readiness to engage, greater short-term wellness and long-term physiology, improved posture, balance and physical self-esteem. These benefits return currency to every child in terms of wider academic learning, attendance, resilience, mental & social wellbeing. 

Schools and educational institutions in the 2020s are shining a much brighter light on mental wellbeing, and on personal, social and emotional development. But in an ever more sedentary world, physical fitness, health and wellbeing – and the development and maintenance of our physical body remain remains on the curriculum ‘subs bench’

4. Limited Role-Modelling of Active Lifestyles

‘Being a role-model is the most powerful form of educating.’ John Wooden.

What is the likelihood colleagues in schools visibly promote and role-model physical activity, fitness and health? One PE lead recently said to me, ‘Our head will support the daily mile if the children can chant their tables while they are running’. 

How many headteachers actively recognise the value of improved physical fitness and health to the point where they actively support 30 minutes of daily physical activity for every child? How many PE leads are able to measure and monitor the actual physical progress made by every child?

How many kitchen staff promote healthy eating behaviours through their own habits? How many lunch supervisors observe the playground with vigour and positive physical energy? How many site teams return balls from the school roof with enthusiasm?* What is the perception of the office staff towards visitors who arrive in school wearing a tracksuit?

How we dress, how we move, what we say and what we do all inform children of our story, and help to shape theirs. At the start and end of the school day, during break times and lunch times, and during lessons, every adult (and older child) in each school community has tremendous opportunities to inspire greater levels of physical fitness and health. 

*I positively encourage our neighbours’ kids to kick balls into our garden. 1. They are being active, and 2. They are taking risks!

As my daughter approaches a primary school age, I ask myself the question, ‘What do I hope she will be at the age of eleven?’. Safe. Happy & healthy. Literate & numerate. Developing personally, socially & emotionally. And with an inquiring mind. Healthy – in mental, social and physical terms. To be in good physical health is to be well-nourished, a good sleeper and someone who is physically fit. 

Are our primary schools fit for physical purpose? I may be an idealist, but I fear they are not.

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