A solution for Physical Education: a menu based on a compass?
The recent All-Party Parliamentary Group Report on PE highlighted the issues facing PE in schools today.
Probably the most crucial challenge facing PE (and the one that is hardest to resolve) is that it inherently contains a clash of values. That clash can be summed up as the conflict between excellence and universality, succinctly summarised as:
“the elitist outcome of sport and the universalist orientation of physical education “
This conflict goes to the heart of what PE is trying to achieve – is it sporting excellence or health and fitness for all?
This reflects two problems that PE has always faced:
Firstly, it has never been properly defined, instead acting as an umbrella term containing many different types of physical activity. At any time, this has included ‘sport’ (traditional competitive sport such as football, rugby, cricket); active recreation and outdoor activities; exercise & fitness; and general physical activity.
Although, PE has often tended to focus specifically on sporting and competitive activities, such as football, rugby and netball, rather than the taking a broader approach and including other exercise and physical activity that may be non-competitive, such as yoga, walking, roller blading or skipping.
Secondly, it is treated as a ‘servant with many masters’. Throughout its history, and at policy and educational level, the objectives for PE have varied widely, including at any time, any or all of the following:
- Physical literacy teaching and development
- Sport participation and development
- Learning life skills
- Personal self-confidence and self-efficacy
- Alternative learning
For schools under pressure, under staffed and under-resourced, it is understandably hard to know how to approach the subject and what to prioritise.
At the same time, there is little effective guidance in the national curriculum.
Upon its publication in 2013, the national curriculum in England contained the inclusion of PE as one of the foundation subjects at all four key stages. The given purpose of the subject was stated as “to inspire pupils to excel in competitive sport and other physically demanding activities”. It also made reference to supporting health and fitness, character building and values for key stages 1-4.
In practice, however, this provided one of the briefest frameworks of the home nations in terms of the philosophy behind, and intent of, the curriculum. Meanwhile, the non-mandated content enabled schools to get away with very little indeed.
As a result, what is referenced in policy and what actually happens in schools can be markedly different. Many schools (at both primary and secondary level), take the route which is easiest to deliver – making all children in a class take part in the same competitive activity at the same time in the same way.
This ensures that most children get a minimum amount of physical activity, provides some competition and teamwork, and enables one teacher to concentrate on many children at the same time.
Unfortunately, the failure of this approach can be attested by all of those who at best have horrible memories of PE lessons and who, at worst, are put off sport for life as a result.
Redefining the landscape
One approach which might help was suggested at a recent Sportsgroup breakfast meeting.
This was to use a multi-axis model, along the lines of the highly popular “Political Compass” (www.politicalcompass.org). This is a multi-axis political model used to organise political thought across two dimensions; economic and social.
A similar approach to PE would start by breaking recreational leisure activity into four types – physical, mental, competitive and non-competitive (as shown in the diagram below).
Figure 1 – Recreational leisure activity model
By way of example, the top left hand quadrant would contain games such as chess, bridge, intelligence and knowledge games. The bottom left would contain activities such as private study, art, and music.
Breaking this down further, PE would be, in essence, concerned with everything on the right-hand side of the vertical axis (outlined in red).
This section can then be further broken down in more detail, as follows:
Figure 2 – Recreational leisure activity model
The “traditional” sports sector, comprising competitive team sports such as rugby, football, hockey and cricket would be in the top left quadrant.
The top right quadrant would then contain similarly traditional competitive sports for individuals (such as athletics, tennis, or squash).
The bottom left quadrant would contain activities such as walking, rambling and orienteering, whilst the bottom right would contain things like skipping, roller blading, yoga, pilates and dancing.
Using the compass
This approach can then be applied to children depending on their personalities and attributes. For example, some children might like being physically active but hate the pressure of competition; others might thrive on competitive pressure, but enjoy doing things by themselves.
Once you have found a child’s place on the above chart, then look at the activities which correspond with that place. A child could then try a menu of those activities and might find one that suits them.
For example, a child who enjoys competitive activities and who thrives on working with others would be ideally suited to team activities in the top left quadrant, such as football, netball and rugby.
Meanwhile, a child who prefers solitude, but wants to be physically active, might be better suited to activities in the two right hand quadrants.
This approach, providing a “child centric” model for PE, is supported by a number of studies, which have shown that when people pursue activities which most fit their personality they are more likely to enjoy them, stick with them and succeed at them.
Combining the psychological and the physical
The compass above would show what activities the child is most suited for based on their personality and psychology, and takes in to account individual difference and preference.
Meanwhile, physical literacy and fitness assessment can help ascertain a child’s natural physical aptitudes and strengths and, therefore, which activities they are best physically suited for.
Taken together, these could then ensure the child can be provided with activities that suit them both physically and psychologically – and which they are more likely to continue.
The current health crisis has thrown into stark relief the importance of making sure children are physically active as they grow. Providing PE that is effective and attractive is crucial. Unfortunately, for too long, a generic approach to PE has been implemented which has failed to reach all children; seemingly failing to take in to account individual differences.
This is not necessarily deliberate – there are many hard working and driven PE teachers out there who do all they can to bring out the best in their pupils. The “one size fits all” approach is more often imposed upon them (“one size has to fit all”) by a school administration facing other pressures. And in a world of league tables, SATs and hard competition, PE ironically becomes the softest target.
Whatever the official role of PE, a school’s ultimate aim must be to help pupils find out who they are, achieve their best, and prepare them for life. The best way to bring this about is to ensure that there is something for everyone – wherever on the compass they are. The increasing pressures facing schools must not be an excuse to continue to overlook this – not least when there is growing evidence that increased physical activity actually improves academic performance!
 See Lee: “Values in physical education and sport: a conflict of interest?”, British Journal of Teaching Physical Education 35(1) pp6-10, 2004
 Eg learning and mastering fundamental movement skills
 Eg including learning new sports, taking part in competitive games, and identifying & nurturing talent
 Eg Preventing obesity, teaching health and wellbeing, improving fitness
 Eg Teamwork, leadership, cooperation, resilience
 Eg Positive body image
 Eg Teaching physiological and anatomical concepts through basic sports science
 The subject aims in England, across the four Key Stages, are listed as follows:
- to ensure that all pupils develop competence to excel in a broad range of physical activities
- to ensure that all pupils are physically active for sustained periods of time
- to ensure that all pupils engage in competitive sports and activities; and
- to ensure that all pupils lead healthy, active lives.