Last Friday I attended an excellent Fortius Primary PE conference. Here, 140+ delegates were inspired by former outstanding headteacher Leigh Wolmarans, subject expert Will Swaithes and Primary PE market leaders Real PE. This conference reaffirmed the overwhelming support for the holistic primary PE narrative. A values, behaviours, attitudes and models based approach, where all children must feel they belong and want to take part. I firmly support this agenda. 

At times during this conference, I noted how physical skills and fitness development were downplayed. I have always hung my hat on physical skills and fitness development – as a central cog within PE. I have been working to build an inclusive fitness legacy in schools and clubs since 2016. I do this because I have seen low physical skills and fitness turn too many 11-13 year olds away from being active. By 4pm, I was thoughtful but perplexed.

On the drive home, my colleague Caroline – a highly intelligent renewable energy engineer and lifelong sportsperson – said, ‘But what you do is right on point. It absolutely develops these values, behaviours and attitudes.’ And she is right. It does. But I cannot find it within myself to promote my work in this more generalised manner.

Why does it feel like I am swimming against the tide with an agenda for improving fitness in every child? I have asked this question countless times. I believe I am closer now to a contextual answer. 

In my first Head of PE role in SW London, I outlined five key aims; develop physical skills, develop personal & social responsibility, improve fitness, find an activity to take into adulthood and enjoyment. We ensured every child developed physical skills and fitness through an innovative and differentiated curriculum. Engagement in and beyond the curriculum grew exponentially. Through greater engagement children developed personally and socially. Success criteria – Year 9-11 girls always brought their kit, engaged positively and were happy running, and our KS4 Sport Education unit was a real hit.

In my second PE leadership role as Director of Sport at St Paul’s Juniors, I pushed hard for a high quality physical education to sit alongside the established Games curriculum. Basic physical skills and fitness provided every child with the building blocks for positive Games experiences. Through moderated Games play, softer skills, values, behaviours and attitudes were nurtured. Success criteria – Consistent smiles on faces and positive body language in less able children as they took part in a Games programme adapted to suit their abilities.

Shaped by a passion for supporting all children, and especially those least active, in my experiences, physical skills and fitness development will help to provide a core foundation for developing personal and social responsibility. I realise there is a disconnect between primary and secondary physical education. As a secondary trained PE teacher, I am uncomfortable teaching early years PE. I recognise primary schools, and notably the early years, are a different landscape, requiring different approaches. However, working in more than 50 primaries, I have observed first-hand a disconcerting lack of basic physical skills and fitness development. This is my lens. 

Over the weekend I have tried my best to step into the shoes of the 140+ delegates at last Friday’s conference. I wonder how many of these teachers (and their colleauges who are not PE leads) did not fit the sports box when they were at school. I wonder how many were physically exposed by insensitive PE delivery methods. I wonder if, subconsciously or consciously, these teachers frame their beliefs for physical education today based on their own ‘Kes-like’ experiences. A different content, in which physical skills and fitness development have less currency, might have a more immediate appeal?

On Saturday afternoon, I took my daughter to watch Bristol Bears Ladies v Wasps. This experience was so inspiring. Full of physically competent and confident female role models who have benefited enormously in life from a rugby identity, which at all levels is tied inextricably to physical skills and fitness development.

In a discussion over Sunday lunch, my partner’s father’s philosophical reflection (as a retired academic) was, ‘Just because you want to fill a hole with concrete, doesn’t mean you can fill a hole with concrete’. In a related conversation with a primary school headteacher first thing Tuesday morning his response was, ‘Surely it’s physical skills and fitness as well’.

Sometimes I encourage classes to consider their body in comparison with a car. When a car does not work you can pay money to change parts, or trade it in for a newer, more reliable model. The same is not true for your body. You only have one body for life.

I want to reinforce my support for developing positive values, behaviours and attitudes through physical education, and for every child to feel they belong and want to take part in this subject. But I want physical skills and fitness development to be front and centre as well, for every child.

Is there a place for physical skills and fitness development in primary schools today, and within our contemporary definition of a holistic physical education? Email Yes or No to (and let me know your thoughts).

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