Exclusive: Cuts in PE and PSHE prompt pupil health fears

Children's commissioner calls for schools to spend more time on PSHE and making sure children are physically active

Helen Ward, Will Hazell and Helene Mulholland

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A significant cut in the number of hours schools teach PE and personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) at school, has raised concerns about pupils' health.

Tes analysis of Department for Education figures has revealed major drops in the time allocated to both subjects prompting fears about the wider impact this will have on young people's physical and mental wellbeing.  

Alison Oliver, chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust, said the reduction in PE hours was “very worrying” because of its implications for “young people’s physical, social and emotional health”. She says the trend risks increasing childhood obesity and exacerbating the mental health crisis. 

 “Young people have probably never needed PE more in terms of their health and wellbeing,” she said.

Children's commissioner Anne Longfield is calling on schools to make changes to promote pupil wellbeing. She said that they had an important role to play in helping children both become more physically active and build personal resilience.   

“It is disappointing to see many schools are spending less time on PE when we know that our children are the least active generation ever and that just one in four boys and one in five girls in England do the recommended 60 minutes of activity each day," Ms Longfield said.

"Schools have a really important role to play, alongside parents, in making sure children are physically active and not spending all their time glued to screens.

“It is also disappointing that some schools are investing less time in PSHE. These lessons are a vitally important part of helping children build the resilience and the skills they need to cope with many of the challenges they will face growing up. Schools should be spending more time on PSHE, not less.”

According to a Tes analysis of England’s school workforce statistics, between 2011 and 2017 the number of hours dedicated to PE in state-funded secondary schools fell by 5 per cent at key stage 3 and by 21 per cent at KS4.

And PHSE lessons have also reduced dramatically, with teacher hours devoted to the subject down by one third (33 per cent) for KS3, and almost halved (47 per cent) for KS4 pupils. 

PE and PSHE are not the only subjects to see a cut in hours. There has been a drop in the amount of time spent on music, art and drama. Meanwhile, the amount of time spent teaching maths, English and science has increased.

Sue Wilkinson, chief executive of the Association for Physical Education and vice-chair of the Council for Subject Associations, blames the fall in PE lessons on the pressure to increase EBacc uptake and the high-stakes nature of exams. 

 “One of the subjects that goes is either PE or music or drama,” she says. “Pressures of exams, pressures of EBacc and intervention strategies are taking kids out of PE lessons.”

Schools are responsible for deciding the number of hours they provide for each subject, but PE is compulsory up to 16 years.

The government has said that all pupils must be taught about good physical and mental health from 2020, with mental resilience, developing confidence and recognising when they or others are struggling with poor mental health are among the subjects that pupils can expect to be taught as part of compulsory health education proposals.   

But the proposals stopped short of making PSHE classes mandatory.

Jonathan Baggaley, chief executive of the PSHE Association, pointed out that PSHE has been shown to support academic attainment. “If pupils are happy and healthy, they’re in a better place to learn and thrive.  It’s a ‘levelling up’ rather than an overhaul that’s required – many schools are doing a great job. We just want to make sure high-quality, regular PSHE is available in all schools.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The education secretary has made clear the importance of helping all children to grow up to be well-rounded individuals that are informed about how to keep themselves healthy and ready to thrive when they leave school.

“That’s exactly why PE is compulsory in all schools until the age of 16 and why we are making health education compulsory in all schools for the first time to give pupils the knowledge to promote their own mental wellbeing, spot signs of difficulty in themselves or others, and seek support if required.”

This is an edited article from the 31 August edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here


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