This morning I saw this tweet poll from Ryan Forwood and it set off a chain of thoughts. Secondary PE colleagues, feel like me, that the motor competency of children in Year 7 is decreasing. This isn’t just hyperbole. Both research and data that I have recorded tends to back this proposition up. Why should we care? Motor competence (both perceived and actual) can facilitate longer-term engagement with physical activity. The literature on this is well established suggesting that a lack in motor proficiency acts as a potential barrier participation in physical activity beyond school and that children who are more highly skilled and motor competent will look to voluntary select higher levels of physical activity and movement. It is often thought that physical activity declines in adolescence, or when children are at secondary school but recent research suggests that this decline could start long before they arrive in Year 7. Whilst the answer of why this might happen is far more complex that just mere motor competency (the environment, including family and societal culture must be a large part of the issue and I hope to see more research on these variables in the future), it is clear that is an important factor in ensuring a child turns into an active adult.
So what can we do as secondary school PE teachers? Blame the government, national agencies, Sport England and primary school PE teaching? Blame parents and society for their lack of interest in the physical development of children in this country? Sure, but how is this going to help the children we have coming into Year 7 next year whose basic movement competency is low and looks to be reducing? The only thing we have in our control is our curriculum and it’s purpose. We need to consider carefully what is PE’s purpose in a child’s education and then see what we need to provide to meet that purpose.
This process for me started a number of years ago. It was clear that our 90% individual and team sport curriculum was no longer fit for purpose. With the reduction in motor competency of each cohort that was coming in, our model of PE ‘physical education as sports techniques‘, only enhanced the deficiencies in motor competence. What do I mean by this? Essentially a multi-activity curriculum structure where the focus of teaching is the learning of textbook decontextualised technique, best described as ‘mile wide and an inch thick.’ It was clear that this wasn’t helping solve motor competency issues. Those who arrived ‘movement rich’ tended to thrive in this curriculum, those who arrived ‘movement poor’ did not. Research in Victorian schools found that it takes between 240 and 600 minutes of instruction time for the average student to become proficient in one fundamental movement skill. What was a pupil experiencing in my school? A half term of rugby. Six one hour lessons (minus changing and setting up time). Perhaps one is missed due to a music lesson or a trip so generously about 300 minutes in total. Then onto waterpolo, then badminton, football, softball, basketball etc. If FMS can take up to 600 minutes to learn for some individuals, how long for complex sports skills?
The movement rich got richer. The movement poor remained poor. Living in a PE version of Groundhog Day. Repeating the same initial sports technique lessons the following year, year after year. A movement competency version of the Matthew Effect at play through a multi sports curriculum. This has had a negative impact on the movement poor (which are coming into my school in larger numbers). So what is the answer? At the moment it is to focus more on movement and less on sport (50% split between individual and team sport and movement based activities). Do less, but for longer and better (being flexible with the curriculum, not seeing everything in half term blocks). Move away from PE as sports technique (by promoting play with purpose for numerous benefits). Be patient (motor competency takes time, especially with those who arrive movement poor). To help children find meaning in movement (through continued dialogue about it’s benefits and it’s place in their life). Perhaps these aren’t the answers, but continuing to do the same thing in the hope of a different outcome is no longer an option.
When I talk this way to colleagues in other schools there is a certain amount of push back, which is understandable as the PE as sports technique multi-activity curriculum has been the dominant one in English secondary schools for as long as I can remember. Perhaps in the past it was fit for purpose, with more children coming to secondary school already movement rich, but that is no longer the case in my context. “Won’t they get bored?” and “How do you help them find an activity they will do for the rest of their life?” are questions I get asked. These are good questions and need to be considered, but only made a priority if the purpose of your PE curriculum is to entertain and give a taster of different sports. If your purpose is, like most PE Teachers, to produce people who take responsibility for lifelong purposeful physical activity, then we need to ask serious questions of this dominant approach. Making things fun and helping children to find activities they enjoy are worthy aims, but never instead of learning and the development of actual and perceived motor competence.
What happens in primary school PE is not our concern. We have no control over it. The blame game isn’t going to help anyone. The only control we have is the purpose of the curriculum we provide, the content we teach, the way we deliver it, the conversations we have, the relationships we build and the positives memories we can try to provide. However all that is pointless unless we consider our purpose and the movement context of the children coming into our school. If more pupils arrive movement poor in Year 7, we need to ask the question “does our PE curriculum create further movement inequality or not?”