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afPE Chair on why physical education in schools is about ‘so much more than producing sporty people’

Association for Physical Education (afPE) Chair Mike Crichton is described as being ‘semi-retired’ on his online job profile.

His hectic diary and itinerant weekly movements would suggest otherwise.

In the 10 days before our meeting, he had visited Durham, Kent, Derby and Aylesbury to deliver presentations at major conferences.

His busy timetable means he is always on the move physically; professionally, however – when it comes to communicating afPE’s stance on physical education policy and the value of PE in schools – he never budges.

The overriding message contained in the words he is so well versed in reciting remains the same wherever his work takes him.

Consistency is key when it comes to impressing on those in the education profession and physical activity sector the importance of seeing the bigger picture in relation to PE. That bigger picture is the critical role PE plays in nurturing the physical and emotional well-being of children, and developing confident, competent, healthy human beings who possess high levels of self-esteem and self-belief.

‘We have to talk about this bigger picture because, if not, PE will be lost, as it will be seen as the subject that just produces sporty people. It’s about so much more than that,’ says Crichton.

‘PE in school is crucial to the development of well-rounded individuals. It is not just about a sporting legacy. And that’s why we always have the same common message, with a common voice, so that this is fully understood by the profession.’

Crichton has been a teacher, head of department, school governor, consultant, advisory teacher, PE adviser and now, on top of his role as afPE Chair and board member, works as an independent physical education consultant.

With nearly 40 years’ experience in the profession, he speaks with authority as well as unbridled passion when responding to our series of searching questions concerning the fundamental role of PE in schools.

We asked a raft of similar questions to primary school teacher Julie George last month – a PE subject leader for the last 25 years – who provided her views on the burning issue of whether PE should receive greater priority in primary schools and discussing the valuable role physical education can play in reversing the national slide in children’s activity levels.

Together, the interviews provide a fascinating insight into the inspiration and aspirations of those people and organisations that influence the way PE is delivered in schools and that have an interest in magnifying its wide-ranging benefits.

Mike Crichton

What are your views on outsourcing under the Primary PE and Sport Premium? Is there a risk not all coaches will be sufficiently qualified (possessing the necessary pedagogy and teaching skills) to be able to adequately assess the continued progress of individual pupils that the national curriculum demands?

‘We at the Association for Physical Education, along with all our national partners, which include the Youth Sport Trust, County Sports Partnership Network and Sport England, agree that teachers should not be displaced or replaced. If we are using outsourcing through the PE and Sport Premium – which, as we all know, is ring-fenced for improving provision – the bottom line is that it is the teachers who will create that sustainability.

‘You can’t embed that sort of progression when you have individuals who drop in and drop out. Where an adult is supporting learning – be it a coach or a parent – if they are dropping in and going away again at the end of the lesson, they can’t actually embed some of the learning and pedagogy that was experienced in the PE lesson.

‘Teacher to teacher dialogue creates that progression – through their own professional learning programmes, their conversations in staffrooms and their ability to talk about the strengths of all the subjects in creating confidence and self-esteem.

‘Ultimately, progression in physical education requires knowledge of the whole child: how that young person is developing, what their competencies are. You can have a child who perhaps lacks the competence to demonstrate skills in certain performance aspects of physical education but, my word, as a team player, as a choreographer, as an official, as a team leader, they can be excellent.

‘Now, if they can take that back into an English lesson and through communication and language skills, demonstrate to teachers that, through PE, they have become more equipped to be more confident in their communication skills, that will obviously add to their academic vocabulary and ability.

‘We see it as a whole-school approach, not just a single subject that sits isolated. So when you have outsourcing going to people who are coming and going, you don’t get that. If adult-supported learning is embedded in schools where they are working alongside teachers, planning with teachers, getting the information and knowledge of the individual children – especially those on individual education plans – that is when it becomes sustainable. You need that communication/collaboration where they are embedded within the school and are regular visitors and are actually there for a frequent period of time, working with staff.

‘But too many schools are using the money to get coaches in to try to motivate the children – nothing wrong with that, by the way – but it’s about the bigger picture of child development.’

Is precedence being given to the core subjects of maths, science and English – at the expense of PE – due to the increased pressures placed on the school to fare well in national league tables?

‘You’ve got a dichotomy at the moment. Because of the whole rigour and revamping of the academic side of qualifications at secondary school level (Key Stages 4 and 5) and the whole issue around the English baccalaureate and the new measures of assessment through Progress 8 [a secondary school accountability system that measures pupils’ progress across eight subjects from age 11–16], schools are becoming very uneasy about exactly what subjects should be offered at that level and how the run-in to Key Stages 4 and 5 works.

‘So we have schools who are fast-tracking children into GCSEs and BTECs in Key Stage 3, which then takes some time away, possibly, from what core competencies and skills should be being understood.

‘So schools face this huge difficulty and challenge of where they sit and where they site physical education.

‘The biggest issue for us as an association is for very strong leaders of physical education to knock on the doors of the senior leaders and say, “This is what else this subject can provide. It is not just about a sporting legacy, it is about a lot more than that.”’

Is the vibrancy of PE as a subject largely dependent on the vibrancy and vitality of the PE subject leader, in combination with a positive working relationship with, and buy-in from, the head teacher?

‘You’re absolutely right. The leadership of the subject is critical. And what we as the Association for Physical Education talk about is the difference that PE in school sport makes to the development of well-rounded individuals. That is about how young people understand being safe and secure, their self-esteem and self-belief, their physical and emotional well-being, their citizenship, their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, and how they enjoy the subject, because physical education presents more to them than just being a player in a netball game or in a rugby situation.

‘And it is important subject leaders are also aware of all the policies and initiatives around nationally – like the government’s Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation blueprint and Sport England’s Towards an Active Nation strategy.

‘The big picture needs to be presented by the subject leaders, explaining what else they can do. If that can be done, then we will have really solid foundations there to keep the subject a really high priority. But the objective of these PE leaders has to be more than just getting better at sport in school.’

Should PE be granted core subject status?

‘It is important to remember that physical education has always been a compulsory subject since the inception of the national curriculum in the 1990s.

‘It was made very clear by Schools Minister Nick Gibb in the Westminster debate on 10 January that PE is a really important subject that attracts and engages so many more young people than probably a lot of other subjects.

‘He made a comment about high quality PE being absolutely essential for instilling well-being and a healthy and active lifestyle, reiterating the point that that is why it is a compulsory part of the national curriculum.

‘Originally, when consultations took place around the new national curriculum for 2014, PE was going to be one of four key core subject areas, alongside maths, English and science. But then it became the foundation subject like it always has been, meaning it is a compulsory part of the national curriculum. [A core subject is defined as compulsory for all students 5–16; a foundation subject is compulsory at one or more Key Stages.]

‘The issue [that affected the decision-making process] is the fact that the government is going down the road of academisation and endorsing the opening of free schools, and that there is no necessity for schools of an academy status or free school status to actually undertake the national curriculum. However, in the Education Excellence Everywhere white paper in March 2016, it was very clear that the national curriculum should be the benchmark for any schools-led curriculum, which meant that actually PE remains on there.

‘The other key thing is, we have all these controversial comments made about PE and the way it is sighted in the school curriculum and how important it is, but through the regime of Ofsted inspections, it is very clear in the common inspection framework that it is about the broad and balanced curriculum.

‘So when Ofsted inspects a school, it is looking for the rich, broad experience that young people undertake, the cultural and sporting opportunities within and beyond the curriculum that contribute to citizenship, spiritual, moral, social and cultural aspects of learning and the well-being of young people.’

Having established the importance of well qualified, enthusiastic and dedicated leaders, and with children’s physical education covering so much more than simply competence in game-based play, how important is collaboration in order to achieve the overriding objective of developing valuable life skills as well as core physical skills?

‘Collaboration is critical. And it comes down to the leadership of schools; not only the senior leadership team, the head teachers, assistant and deputy heads, but also the governors and the governing body, and it comes down to the parents, carers and local community that ask challenging questions of the school about their provision for all subject areas. And it is down then to the way that the curriculum is managed, operated and delivered and how PE is led by innovative, very well qualified, good teachers, who understand the importance of PE beyond just the sport that PE drives.

‘In terms of the importance of PE, afPE, as the single subject association for PE in the UK, has produced a free definitions poster, which explains the subtle differences and definitions between physical education, school sport and physical activity.

‘Physical education is the planned, progressive learning that takes place in the school’s curriculum in timetable time, and delivered to all pupils, so is fully inclusive. The whole involvement is around learning to move – so that is the physical competence – and moving to learn, which then becomes learning through movement in a range of skills and understandings beyond just physical activity. That includes cooperation with others, teamwork, physical activity levels and experiencing a huge range of activities, which includes sport dance.

‘That requires innovative, high quality leadership and management, monitoring and evaluation programmes by senior leadership, but ultimately, the most important thing is, whatever schools are doing as part of the curriculum – and however they are enriching and enhancing the curriculum through extracurricular clubs, opportunities through community links with clubs and other schools and so on – the impact on children’s outcomes is key, and that includes competency, health and well-being, and understanding lifelong learning in physical activity.’

Further reading

  • afPE’s purpose is to promote and maintain high standards and safe practice in all aspects and at all levels of physical education, influencing developments in physical education at national and local levels. View their website here.
  • Sports Coach UK, in collaboration with afPE, the County Sports Partnership Network, Sport England, ukactive Kids and the Youth Sport Trust, has developed the Coaching in Primary Schools Toolkit – an information portal containing essential information for schools on how to make best use of the Primary PE and Sport Premium.
  • afPE produces Safe Practice, the bestselling book on school sport, which is published by Coachwise. Now available online, it is the definitive guide to planning, managing and delivering safe experiences for children involved in PE sessions and school sport activities, and is an essential reference tool for primary and secondary PE leaders, head teachers, governors, student teachers and coaches who support schools in their PE delivery.
  • afPE endorses the Coachwise PE Core Activities resources, which help teachers benchmark and measure pupil progress in PE. Coachwise has updated the PE core tasks to meet current national curriculum guidelines, making them available as durable activity cards and as downloads and video demonstration clips on the PE Core Activities website.
  • In partnership with afPE, Coachwise also offers PE and school sport qualifications that help training providers prepare learners to take on roles in school/early years settings. These qualifications will develop their abilities to help nurture physically confident children.