In my early years as a PE teacher, I found a great book by Dom Hellison called Teaching Responsibility Through Physical Activity. Over the years, this book has supported my efforts to develop pupils personally and socially through the vehicle of physical education. But why does it fall so heavily on physical education to build character, and should our subject be more responsible than others for this area of development in schools?

My sense of the role of physical education is just that. It is based on my childhood experiences, my education and training, my time teaching in schools and my philosophy. As I continue to reflect upon all things physical education, I am increasingly conscious of the importance of all views that are not my own, and particularly those which challenge my beliefs and opinions. This reflection has guided me to consider the level to which physical education delivery should be holistic – at the expense of focusing on physical development. 

The motivation for this blog is drawn largely from recent conversations with academics, policymakers, school staff and PE teachers in respect of this question. 

I believe we have two teams right now. On one side, those promoting a holistic narrative for physical education. I have witnessed this as more prevalent in primary education and in academia. A recent article by David Grecic, Andrew Sprake & Robin Taylor of the University of Central Lancashire in support of this approach gave an example as, ‘Children creating their own physical game, its rules, equipment, and space requirements. The children would allocate group roles and take ownership of their own learning by planning the game, implementing it, and supporting others’ engagement with it. Finally, they would reflect on the impact of the game on themselves and others’. On paper, this approach is compelling. But does it ensure all pupils make good physical progress in curriculum time? 

I have yet to see this in practice. By trying to teach everything, might we end up with pupils exposed to a range of ideas and content, but achieving little in any of them? 

On the other side, are those who believe there are times when we should prioritise more focused delivery, such as developing good physical movers. I have seen this approach more often in secondary and independent schools. ‘If I go back 20 years, all of the primary school children I taught coming into Year 7 were generally, good movers. They had basic FMS. I can safely say, I can remember a visible shift from about 2004-2006 onwards. The students arriving in Year 7 changed. Across the board, they were simply not good movers’ (Mark Evans. Head of PE. Stonyhurst College). With a focus on physical development, pupils will become good movers – more physically competent and more physically literate. 

What is not in question is the power and opportunity of physical education to develop the whole child – physically, cognitively, personally, socially, emotionally, creatively. But how do we prioritise and frame physical education to generate actual value in its key areas? 

There is much support for the pupil-centred, cooperative learning which takes place in the holistic approach. In this method, we are exposing pupils to unique and varied learning opportunities which apply in constantly changing environments. It sounds convincing. When delivery is more focused, it can become a harder sell in the context of learning.

We can better realise the value of this focused approach by considering the difference between learning and progress. Learning can be defined as the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience or being taught. Progress is development towards an improved or more advanced condition. In physical education, I can think of pupils who are learning but who do not make progress. When we focus on physical development, less learning might be taking place, but, amidst a childhood obesity epidemic, the ensuing physical progress should not be overlooked. 

Perhaps the best way forward is to work together, by making space in the curriculum for both approaches. If so, how do we achieve this in a subject which continues to be marginalised in many schools? 

With such a broad scope, I propose we push for two subject areas, as is the case in many schools already – PE and Games. In physical education pupils learn to use and move their bodies competently, efficiently and safely. They build physical health and well-being. And develop physical and environmental literacy. In Games, pupils take part in a variety of progressive physical activities and sports – modified to reflect their ability level. These experiences provide a wide and varied range of learning experiences.

If we are going to carry the can for developing pupils in multiple domains, clarity in how we define physical education and games is essential. The below wheel shows the interconnection of these terms in a possible wider curriculum context. 

Domain Wheel

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