The misconception of PE in the Media

Physical Education, sport and recreational physical activity have been in the headlines in the recent weeks. It is right and important for these issues to be discussed and debated at a national level, such are the current issues of health, childhood obesity, wellbeing and sedentary behaviour. However it is clear that there is a mixing and misunderstanding of the terms, especially in the media and with politicians. This post is an exploration of those terms, in attempt to articulate my personal view points. I hope others who read will respond, challenge and help me refine them.

Physical Education

This, at least in the UK, is a compulsory curriculum subject. It’s main aim is to foster physical development and movement competence. It involves students in a wide range of physical activities with the ultimate aim of encouraging and preparing them for a active and healthy lifestyle beyond school.

The idea that physical education is just a break from the more serious business of an academic education misses the whole point of PE and severely undervalues it’s part in developing the whole of the pupil. Physical education isn’t a break from cognitive work, it fully embodies it and is unique in the physical development of a child. Physical education rejects the dualism of the mind and the body being two separate entities, but views that they are intertwined and for true potential to be achieved, both must be developed and maintained.

At it’s heart physical education promotes physical literacy. ‘Physical Literacy can be described as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.’ (Whitehead, 2014). Although the development of physical literacy is a lifelong task, teachers of PE are uniquely placed to promote it. However, high quality physical education, can also assist in the mental, emotional and social development of a child. It promotes education as a whole and if approached in the right way can foster self-esteem and confidence.

The current Department for Education purpose of study for Physical Education is:

‘A high-quality physical education curriculum inspires all pupils to succeed and excel in competitive sport and other physically demanding activities. It should provide opportunities for pupils to become physically confident in a way which supports their health and fitness. Opportunities to compete in sport and other activities build character and help to embed values such as fairness and respect.’

I think making sport such a focus of curriculum PE is a key reason leading to misunderstanding of the nature of physical education and being counterproductive in it’s overall aims. However sport does have it’s place in Physical Education.


In my mind you don’t need to called it ‘competitive sport’ as all sport in it’s nature is competitive. Individuals, pairs, small groups and large teams compete against each other with the sole objective of winning.

SportAccord, which is the umbrella federation for both olympic and non-olympic sports uses the following criteria, determining that a sport should:

  • have an element of competition
  • be in no way harmful to any living creature
  • not rely on equipment provided by a single supplier
  • not rely on any “luck” element specifically designed into the sport

There are opposing views on the competitive nature of sport, probably derived from the original desport meaning leisure. There has been a movement to widen the definition of sport to include all physical activities and therefore widen participation. The Council of Europe includes all physical activity, including those participated for fun, however this loses the essence of what sport is.

Unesco definition of sport amalgamates a lot of ideas. It is understood as all forms of physical activity that contribute to physical fitness, mental well-being and social interaction. These include play; recreation; organized, casual or competitive sport; and indigenous sports and games. This then can lead to more confusion and misunderstanding about what sport exactly is and what it contributes to physical education. However I am very much in favour of many aspects of their policy to promote high quality physical education.

The key issue is that many people think sport is physical education, including those in government. I can see how that would come about. It certainly was my experience of my PE at school as it was for many others. It probably still is for many. This comes from teachers strengths and experiences, confidence in teaching, facilities, equipment and resources. This raises issues about training and qualifications for PE teachers. I don’t think my sports science degree and PE PGCE prepared me well enough to teach PE. Sport shouldn’t be the predominant experience within physical education and it certainly shouldn’t be confused with physical education, which has a far wider scope, especially focusing on physical competence, skilful movement and perseverance.

However should sport be exclusive to after school provision? I think not. This narrows the chance at participation and makes it elitist in many ways. Therefore is only accessible to the most talented students or those supported by parents. The question of whether sport should be part of curriculum PE and/or extra-curricular provision is the wrong one. It is whether competition should be. If your answer is no, then you need to think of many of the practices we have in education, our examination system and our society as a whole, but perhaps that is a topic for another blog.

Recreational physical activity

If you take part in what is commonly thought of as a sport, without the competitive element, for health benefits then it is recreational physical activity. Swimming, cycling and running are great examples of this. It still has structure, but less so than sport. It is a self-chosen activity engaged in for sole purpose of enjoyment and health.

It has it’s place within PE, especially if lessons are based around showing how students can participate in recreational physical activity, how they can bring them into their life and also the benefits to their overall health and wellbeing. However a physical education curriculum that is full of recreational physical activities, especially with older students, devalues it. Therefore we must be careful when and how we engage students in it. Doing is important, but then so is knowing. Ensuring children are competent and confidence in movement through physical education will hopefully allow them to pursue recreational physical activity out of school and part of their daily lifestyle.


Play is the work of children. It consists of those activities performed for self-amusement that have behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards. It is child-directed, and the rewards come from within the individual child; it is enjoyable and spontaneous

For some reason this one is never mentioned in the media. It is overlooked, but is hugely important in the physical and social development of the child. Whilst PE in many schools may be two hours a week (although this is in decline), this is low in comparison to the amount of break time students have over the course of the week. How much time, effort, money and resources are put into ensuring an environment that encourages children and students to physically play, especially at secondary schools?

There may be the need for physical education to remind older students how to play and encourage them how to do this in their own free time, especially within school. Ensuring there are enough places for children to play outside of school and encouraging it is essential in supporting what is being taught in physical education.


A lot of comments I read in the news about physical education, especially about what it is and it’s importance within school is in my mind fundamentally wrong. Most people confuse sport with physical education and that misconception can lead to bad practice both from teachers of PE and from those who hold power to make decisions within education. There is minimal talk in the press on how to improve the quality of PE. Instead it is focused on why can’t state schools produce more world class athletes like private schools. One of the reasons why there are so many issues with poor levels of health and activity is because there is no consensus and understanding. Until this is achieved, especially at a political level and in the media, then real debate and discussion on how to improve provision of physical education will never truly occur.



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