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Study blows whistle on mainstream sport

The emphasis on team games in secondary schools is restricting the physical education of children with special needs. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

Pupils with special educational needs are being inadvertently excluded from secondary school PE lessons and after-school clubs because of the focus on competitive team sports, claims a report from University College Chester.

The National Curriculum for Physical Education in England and Wales, published in 1992, established a broad and balanced curriculum as a statutory requirement for all state pupils. It required teachers to pay attention to the principles of inclusion and use different learning methods to ensure all pupils, including those with SEN, were able to participate.

However, the report by Andrew Smith of Chester's department for sports and exercise sciences, found that the 1992 paper had continued to "privilege" sport over more general and varied physical activity, with a particular focus on competitive team games.

According to other studies, 40 per cent of youngsters with special needs participate in after-school sports activities compared with 79 per cent of the mainstream population.

The Chester research found "an unintended consequence of including pupils with SEN wherever possible in mainstream schools, and thus PE, may be a corresponding decrease in the opportunities available for these pupils to participate in extra-curricular activities. Hence it might be suggested that these pupils are neither receiving the same extra-curricular opportunities nor participating to the same extent in specific activities than they might have done had they remained in the special school sector."

The study, based on interviews with seven teachers - five male and two female - at different secondary schools found that while staff had good intentions to include and integrate all pupils, the reality was that they found it difficult. All of those interviewed said more youngsters with SEN were being educated in their PE lessons than five years earlier.

A male teacher said that inclusion made it "more taxing on me to plan a lesson. I have real concerns about integrating a pupil with a disability fully and ensuring it isn't to the detriment of others". Another said the school's emphasis on team sport and games "makes it more difficult for them to access the curriculum". When pupils were unable to take part in a team game, teachers sometimes offered alternative activities. However, the study said SEN pupils usually had to "fit in" rather than have a curriculum devised by their teachers to suit their needs.

The study concluded that "regardless of the particular difficulties a pupil may have, one key issue remains: the apparent emphasis placed upon sport and team games within the PE curriculum appears to do rather more to exclude than include some of these pupils from particular learning situations in PE". It recommended that teacher training included a "clear and consistent approach to inclusive PE", which should continue throughout a teacher's career with continuing professional development.

Chris Darlington, president of the National Association for Special Educational Needs, said: "Schools must provide activities that are appropriate to children's learning needs, as is required under the NCPE. It should not be about pushing pupils into particular games or sports, but catering to their individual needs so there is a balance."

* The inclusion of pupils with special educational needs in secondary school physical education, by Andrew Smith, University College Chester.

Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, Vol 9, No 1, May 2004

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