Progress in PE is never linear

As usual, my school being quite traditional, is waiting on what other schools are doing with KS 3 assessment. Therefore we are continuing our misguided practice of levels with sub levels. A number of HODs, including myself, have been saying this is the chance to design something that is specific to the children we have and for the context of our school. SLT are worried that we won’t be able to evidence progress to OFSTED.

There are a number of concerns I have with regards to assessment within PE currently. We have no data from Primary Schools so we baseline assess ourselves. We aren’t then allowed to use that to set our own targets, having them set on Maths, English and Science performance at KS 2. The targets then set are too high and not individual and therefore 90% of our students are ‘failing’ PE and require intervention. This can have a huge de-motivational impact that goes against our main aim of educating students in engaging in a healthy and active lifestyle. However the point of this post is about the linear progress that is expected, by both SLT and parents, within subjects. Progress in PE is never steady or regular, especially if you take performance as the indicator. It can go up, down and plateau. Whatever system we implement has to take that into account and explain it clearly.

Lets take shot putt as an example.

Usually when a child comes to us in Year 7 they have never thrown a shot in their life. We teach them the rules, the safety aspects and then we teach them a basic standing throw.

Even as a basic standing throw it is an incredibly complex skill for novices that needs to be broken down and practiced repetitively. As they become more accustomed to the throw their performance (the distance they throw) will go up. Obviously some students naturally pick things up more quickly than others. If that is the case we move them on to the next stage which will be teaching them the shuffle.

Adding the shuffle, which is basically a sideways skip, effects their performance disastrously. Performance goes down, sometimes as much as 2 to 3 meters, but gradually if pupils persist they get back to their prior levels of performance and then begin to improve. However this takes time and patience and an understanding from the pupil that their performance will deteriorate first before it gets better. As teachers we make sure we explain this to them. The next stage for those who master the shuffle is the glide (enjoy the old school video and music)

What we get to see with progress in shot putt is something akin to this:


And this is going to be individual for every student in every activity area within PE. I’ll take three case studies from students who I teach.

Edit – rereading through this, I suppose you could make the case of progression due to the more complex skill being attempted by the student.

1. Bob – Bob is now in Year 10. When he arrived in Year 7 we received a letter from his Primary School saying he ‘loathed’ any physical activity, and that he would ‘constantly scream and hit his head on the floor’ during PE lessons. We also received a letter from his mother saying he had a very poor experience of PE and therefore had a mindset that he was not going to join in or enjoy it at our school. Bob arrived with very poor basic skills, unable to run more than 20 meters without giving up, couldn’t throw, would struggle to kick a ball as he didn’t have the strength or skill to balance on one leg. However he loved mathematics and science and was therefore set the target level of 8 in PE. This is utter nonsense and unrealistic. In his reports he was constantly failing, in lessons he was constantly engaging. This year, in his 4th year of PE he was able to sidefoot stop a ball in football and make an accurate pass. Progress! The PE department celebrated with him like he had just won gold at the Olympics. The other boys congratulated him. We received a letter from his mother saying his attitude to physical activity has changed, he now does body weight exercise when he wakes up in the morning. This is massive progress for Bob and any system of assessment needs to take this into account no matter how slow and long the process is.

2. Billy – Billy is a year 9 boy with the body of an adult. He is as physically developed as I am. He is county rugby, football and athletics. However we feel his success in PE is down to his physicality. Within lessons he neither looks to work on the task at hand or try to make improvements in his technique, tactical awareness or in his inability to understand why other students can’t do what he does. I’ve seen this many times in my career. This type of student will not develop or make progress and by the time he is 16 other students would have caught up with the physical advantages that Billy currently has. They would have had to work harder than Billy, focusing on their technique, decision making and their ability to work as a team. There is a good chance unless we can get Billy to improve in these areas his performance will plateau. An assessment system needs to be able to take this into account.

3. John – John is a Year 9 boy who over the summer holidays has grown over a foot. John is not yet comfortable with his extra height. All the things he could do before such as forward roll, jump, sprint and throw have regressed. He is awkward in the body he has and it’s clearly frustrating him. We have spoken to him at length about this process and that he will regain his previous levels of performance once he becomes accustomed to his new shape. It’s deeply upset him and at times he has been crying at the end of lessons because once what he found was easy has become difficult. In our current system we would have to show that John has gone backwards in his development, and this would require an intervention. That sort of thing would probably crush John’s self esteem which is already battered and bruised. I’m not sure how a system of assessment and evidence of progress would show this, but I feel it must.

I’m guessing that progress is not linear in other subjects, but I may be wrong. Whatever system that we bring in to replace the current levels needs to be able to show and demonstrate that clearly to students and parents. I’d be tempted to move away from assessment altogether from PE and have ‘marginal gains’ conversations with students focusing on how we can make a small tweak to their technique, decision making, physical capacity, teamwork or understanding rather then taking the time to explain what the difference between a 4b and a 4a is. The other thing I would like to see is patience. Sometimes progress, especially in PE, can take years. As a teacher we fundamentally want our students to improve, we aren’t going to deliberately go out of our way to hinder progress. It would be nice to have our professional judgement and expertise in our subject not questioned every time every child does not make the required linear progress. Linear progress in all subjects, let alone PE is a complete myth. For us teaching PE it means that all children may at one or other time not be making required progress resulting in ‘intervention’. For a subject that doesn’t have a tangible outcome, but is a life long pursuit of making healthy and active decisions, then this pursuit of evidence for linear progress is having a possible detrimental effect on the health of our children.

10 thoughts on “Progress in PE is never linear

  1. Interesting article. I personally think that PE is not just about their physical development. One hour a week is not sufficient enough time to do anything tangible within mini assessment windows of 6-7 weeks. If a students final grade comprises solely on their physical development or mastery then yes, you leave yourself open to in accuracies and frustrations in assessment and progress. With less weighting given to actual physical performance we maybe up for a battering from the PE purists I do think we manage some of those limitations. Our A,B,C,D (active lifestyles, building success, critical reflection, developing skills) system is way from from being perfect but I think it allows us to be more inclusive and also better teachers, not just frustrated sports coaches, where we have more pathways to observe real students progress.


    1. Hi Stefan. Thanks for your response. I totally agree that PE shouldn’t be only about their physical development. Working in an academy we have been able to create our own curriculum. It is a work in progress but we feel very much like you. You can read what we are trying to do here: A curriculum for an Active and Healthy Lifestyle? I really like your A,B,C,Ds of a PE Curriculum. You seem much further down the road in shaping a curriculum we are interested in creating. Any advice or feedback you could give us on our journey would be very much appreciated.


  2. Having the same issues with Drama in my school at the moment. KS3 pupils do different skills in different modules so may well perform to a level 5 level in one unit but not in another, but you can’t give an honest appraisal because levels can never ever go down.

    Also you’re left with the issue of those who do not progress in the linear ‘two sub-levels per year’ way due to not having an aptitude for a subject that requires one.


  3. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve added you on Twitter as I made a response about the fitness testing questions that arose from your conversation with another teacher.


  4. Hello

    This is a very interesting article and I find that our department has similar issues to this. I spoke to the Head in September and he agreed that the PE department could scrap levels completely. From September to November I spent a considerable amount of time creating a comprehensive assessment booklet mapping from Year 7 to 11 for 23 activities, officiating and leadership using the Edexcel gcse scoring system as a guide. I presented this to all school staff in a recent twilight meeting and they thought it very good also. We will be using this from now on.

    David Beeston
    Head of PE/SSCO
    Oxclose Community Academy


    1. Hi David. Thanks for taking the time to respond. The fact that you can use your own system for PE is a great start. That way you can ensure it is meaningful for your own staff, the students and the parents. A few questions. 1. Will you baseline assess at the beginning? 2. Will you be allowed to set your own targets and will you be able to change them if needs be? 3. Will you also be using the GCSE criteria, if not what will you use to decide to grade? 4. How will you go about sharing those grades with students and parents? 5. Do you think your grading system will have any impact on your workload? 6. Do you think your grading system will have an impact on the development and progress of the student?

      I’ve been really thinking hard what I would do if my SLT gave me the same opportunity to develop my own system as you have. Right now I don’t think I would introduce a system at all, I’d probably get rid of grading in PE if I could. I would rather have more opportunities to talk to the students and their parents, which I don’t have at the moment.

      You sound like you have a very clear plan in your head and you have got your colleagues support. I’d be interested to hear the implementation goes. Good luck to you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.