Has PE lost its way?

Has PE lost its way?

In Memento, Guy Pierce, plays a character called Leonard Shelby. Leonard, a former insurance investigator, suffers from anterograde amnesia, short term memory loss in which he cannot make new memories. He suffers from this because of the injuries he sustained whilst trying to save his wife, he is now fuelled by revenge and vengeance.


This pursuit of revenge and justice is extremely difficult for Leonard who has to use aids such as Polaroids, notes, and extensive tattoos to help him keep track of things because he looses his memory about every fifteen minutes. These tools remind him of where he is, where he is going, and the purpose of his investigation.

Are we trying to be something we aren’t? 

I sometimes feel that Physical Education in school is like that. We have an overall aim, but we constantly keep forgetting it. We forget it because Senior Leaders keep trying to pigeon hole us as subject like Maths, Science and English, which we patently are not. I think PE teachers don’t help this. We want to be taken seriously by our colleagues, so implement a lot of what they do into our subject. I have been guilty of this to on many occasions, with constant AfL written tasks, pitstop plenaries and the desire to evidence rapid progress in 20 minutes. They expect us to assess and report in the same way as those subjects and that means we judge pupils that are either making expected progess or failing. How can you ever be failing core Physical Education is beyond me. Some students progress far slower (and some maybe not at all), but when your ultimate aim is a lifetime of health and physical activity surely we can be a little more patient? You want a child to stay involved in being active for life. How is telling them at the age of 11 to 16 they are failing, below the national average or not making the required progress, going to achieve that aim?

Knee-jerk reactions

We also forget our aim because of the hyperbole and influence of the media and politicians. Obesity is on the rise! PE in schools is a joke! Competitive sport is essential for a top performing school! There isn’t enough strenuous exercise in PE! Now today we don’t promote enough low level physical activity! All of a sudden it becomes the schools responsibility to tackle these issues. Senior leaders, either under pressure to deliver an ‘outstanding’ school or who have no clear vision of where PE should fit into a child’s development, place unreasonable or unrealistic demands onto PE teachers. I welcomed the Governments u-turn on cuts to SSPs into the rebranded PE and Sports premium for primary schools, but spending is down to the discretion of the Headteacher. I hope they have a clear idea about the role PE plays in the development of a child. If not, PE becomes a Jekyll and Hyde parody of itself. With Dr Jekyll spending his PE lessons filling in worksheets or constantly on iPads, demonstrating and evidencing his progress. Or Mr Hyde just constantly doing, playing only competitive sport and working on the body in the gym with no concept of what and why he is doing it. Neither of these are what, in my honest opinion, Physical Education should be.

Possible solutions

I’m interested in the approach that Ashwell Academy School in Hull are looking to implement. Whilst not something I would want replacing core Physical Education, the fact that they have students, staff, parents and local government all buying into their approach and have a clear overall aim of Linking life long movements as part of a daily active lifestyle is impressive, brave and probably fits the context of their school. I hope they share their findings and results of what that they have achieved with their programme once it is completed in 2015. I’m sure if it is successful we might see more schools following suit. I also like the approach the Danes are taking in cracking obesity. Very clear aims and guidelines, clearly shared by health officials, and supported by both school and parents. However these are both retrospective actions, where the system, in some way, has already failed those children and people are trying to rectify it.

I think these initiatives are going to be successful because of something my friend James (@My_PE_EXAM) calls the ‘Golden Triangle of Support’. Until we have all three singing from the same hymn sheet then we will struggle to engage children in a healthy and active lifestyle. The question is why does this only happen when there is a problem?


So where can we begin?

– For government public health services, educational services, schools, PE teachers and parents to work together in the provision of quality physical education. It can’t just rely on one group for success. Until this happens, any form physical education will not have the desired effect; keeping children active and healthy outside of school and for a lifetime.

– To stop trying to make our subject into something else. As PE Teachers we should take pride in that, not compromise it to be something it isn’t. It’s unique, it develops the whole of the child and if approached the right way can support and assist academic and character development. We need senior leaders in schools to have a clear idea of where physical education sits in their educational philosophy and help us promote it to the children, parents and other staff within our schools. That responsibility cannot be just left to the teachers of PE.

– We need to ensure confidence, competence and enjoyment from an early age. If  you are worried about low levels of health and fitness and high levels of obesity in children and adults then you can’t leave responsibility of change to just solely physical education teachers. However if you want us to be the driving force for change, then how about introducing legislation for daily PE, especially in Primary schools, and ensuring every primary school in the country has a specialist PE trained teacher?

Building memories

Recently I read of some research carried about by Dr Ashley Casey and Mikael Quennerstedt on how boys remembered their experiences of Physical Education, it did seem focused around learning and playing sports. However some of the strongest memories though were about being trusted with their own learning and sharing their opinions. This got me thinking a lot about memories. Are the memories we create within our lessons a powerful driving force for the continuation of having an active and healthy lifestyle? Recent research from the University of Birmingham indicates a strong possible connection between memories of physical activity at school and the amount of exercise taken in adult life.


After leaving school I think most of us only have snap shots of what it was really like. Just like Leonard Shelby in Memento we are left with looking at a bunch of Polaroids of our memories. I believe those pictures can have a huge impact on the choices we make in our future. If they are negative they will influence us to make excuses not to engage or follow certain areas. However if those pictures are positive they can have a huge impact on continuing to be engaged with something for a life time. Whilst it might be acceptable to drop an academic subject at Year 9 before starting GCSEs, can we afford children to drop living a healthy and active lifestyle?

Ensuring we give students happy, enjoyable and long lasting memories in PE I feel is important for our overall aim. (My internal debate is whether it is more important than habit.) The more varied and deep memories we can give them will only help once they have left school. However if parents and significant others in their lives can help build upon those memories to, then we have a much greater chance at keeping them healthy and active. We also need to under pin those good memories with knowledge and understanding and create an environment where we allow children to take responsibility for their own learning and to feel like they have choices in their physical education lessons. That way we can then ensure we don’t lose our way as PE Teachers and neither will the children we teach when they leave us and only have the memories of our time together in school.

19 thoughts on “Has PE lost its way?

  1. Wow, great blog post. My buddy, a fellow blogger and amazing PE teacher from Scotland but teaching in Melbourne, Ross Halliday, has a great saying when he presents. He says that as teachers ‘we are not teaching for the next 60 minutes in a lesson, but for the next 60 years in life’. So true and so powerful as this is exactly what we should be striving to do. Providing long last memories that are positive in nature and inspire students to lead better lives. To know that being physically active for life is the real difference maker.

    Athletes will always chose to play sport, but what we should be doing is making an active lifestyle understood and embraced by all. The ultimate goal of my program is to intrinsically motivate every single one of my students to love their PE experience and to LEARN the big ideas connected to physical movement. To give young people every opportunity possible to select their own areas of growth and pursue them. NOT to measure physical literacy but to support it. NOT to measure levels of fitness, but to encourage it. To provide essential feedback related to physical literacy and fitness, but to create a long lasting impact on my learners to be the best that they can be. To give them every opportunity to succeed at a level which best suits them as learners. To be difference makers in their lives. That’s all I ever want from my experience teaching PE, the best job in the world. I’m proud of what I do.

    Thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think as a Primary School teacher of PE you have a much more important role in that. A huge amount of development, habit and enjoyment in physical education happens at primary school. You get the basics right then it’s far easier for us at secondary school to keep them interested and motivated, as long as we have similar aims. The biggest difficulty I have engaging pupils is those who have had hugely poor experiences at primary school (or those whose family backgrounds don’t value physical activity).

      Now during puberty and beyond I know students are going to drop out of organised sports. It always happens because their interests go elsewhere. To me that’s not the major concern, the major concern are the ones who drop out and have no plan B to stay active. I tend to find these are the ones that mainly had poor primary school experience and that the fundamentals were poorly underdeveloped. I have no data for that, it’s purely anecdotal, so it would be interesting to see if my claim had any validity.

      Perhaps it’s because the current curriculum I provide has an over abundance of competitive team sport in there? We’ve been trying to make a move away from that over the last few years, either through introducing different pedagogical approaches to teams sports, or offering a wider variety of activities associated with health and fitness, but we still have a long way to go.

      The message Ross has is a strong clear message. PE isn’t for developing better rugby players or footballers. Confidence and competence in those sports may help for long term participation, but that should be an extra. It’s about helping students understand the joy and importance of being active and finding a path that is suitable for them.

      As always Andy thanks for your comments and support. It is very much appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You pose the question ” Has PE lost its way?” My reply, “No” never been on a better path. Here’s the rational for my answer. The very points you make. Sure we can go down an integration rabbit hole, never to emerge, or worse wake up one day to find ourselves talking incessantly, writing,and integrating to the point it diminishes our aim of building life long healthy active movers. Or worse yet, we can spend our time assessing for the sole purpose of grading and thus degrading students, discouraging the late bloomers from ever wanting to see the inside of a gymnasium again. But even with all the outside pressure, administration, media, I don’t think many of us are caving to this demise. Instead more physical educators are teaching with intense purpose. Long gone are the days when I believed just creating super fun, high MVPA activities would do the trick. Yes, the activities are still super fun, and I could preach for hours on maintaining high MVPA throughout a lesson, but integration and assessment happen within these activities. Purposeful planning so I can infuse every action packed lesson with content, and authentic integration makes physical education live up to its’ name. Do I assess? Endlessly! But not so I can record grades, catching students who can’t use correct form, but instead I use formative assessment continuously to form my next move. I’m determining, “Are they getting it? Why, Why not? What is the 1/2 step back in this progression that I need to review for these two children? What are the extensions I need to provide for these two?.” Are there still programs lacking a GPS? Absolutely, however, between social media and professional learning networks physical education teachers are like a building wave on the horizon. Formative assessment, maintaining rigorous content and high MVPA, make every activity purposeful. Using technology to enhance my program, not as a gimmick along with authentic integration connects learnings in physical education to the rest of the world. I guess it comes down to balance and the intense determination to produce the best physical education lesson to each student every day.


    1. Thanks you so much for your optimistic approach. I guess I am a little tired and pessimistic from a long term. I have some autonomy on how I deliver PE in my school, so we have started to embrace the changes you have have mentioned in your excellent response. The ‘leaders’ of the school are happy with it and the feedback from children and parents is generally positive. However when the government or a politician makes an announcement regarding health, activity, sport or competition my ‘leaders’ jump up and down and want this and that added. It can be difficult to keep to the track you think is best, when their is a reactionary attitude to anything said in the press. If we back ourselves and what we do, we need to have the constitution to see it through and not shift our thinking to every whim or fad that is announced, because what we do matters for the long term health of that child.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I’m actually very interested in the outcomes to the project at Ashwell Academy in Hull. I hope when they have all the data and results from their project that they will share it with the education community. If their is success, not just for health and combatting weight and obesity but for attainment, attendance and behaviour then I could see this model being copied in schools across the county.


  3. Thanks for the good read. How are you reporting to parents in terms of school progress reports, especially at KS4 core PE? If Johnny in year 10 has just done table tennis, football and rugby this term, what would go home to parents.


    1. Hi Mike. Firstly our reports include a grade out of 5 on punctuality, organisation, effort and attitude. The written aspect of the report is up to 500 characters, so there isn’t a great deal we can say at any depth. We split the report in PE into two parts; STRENGTH and FOCUS. The strength are the areas of the curriculum we feel they have worked hard at, improved or implemented. It could range from just a specific technique in a name sport, levels of health and fitness to leadership skills, communication or how they work with their peers. The focus is one key area we would like them to try and improve upon, most of the time this is linked to physical activity out of the class, such as joining a club, representing their house in a sport or working on specific areas of health or fitness.


  4. Great post, as always, but the point that stood out for me was your response to a comment. I’m surprised that the reports home to parents include punctuality, organisation, effort and attitude. Is there any standards based grading at all? I fight students all of the time that think that dressing correctly, being on time and being a pleasant student is sufficient to deserve an A.


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