Curriculum needs to get into shape
But for many teachers such an approach has been a cop out: a chance to "let the kids out and play". It is my contention that this limits the potential of PE to the extent that it does not deserve the status of a compulsory subject. Such a view is neither appropriate nor desirable. In short it gives PE a bad name.
Next autumn and the coming of the new national curriculum orders for key stage 4 afford a major opportunity for change. This is not least because the orders offer important signs of progress. Schools should seize this chance and move towards a discipline that is not only enjoyable, but worthwhile and recognised as such.
It is true that GCSE courses have made an important contribution to enhancing general PE. GCSE physical education has been the fastest growing course for the past few years: there were 68,114 candidates last year, a 20 per cent increase on the year before that.
Positive as this is however, teachers' explorations into GCSE have not taken them far enough in considering and developing a more comprehensive package of reforms, particularly at key stage 4. Good physical education can add to the student's portfolio of achievements and enhance the profile of the school.
There are three strands we need to consider: the practical, the academic and the vocational, strands not dissimilar from those outlined in Sir Ron Dearing's recent report on 16 to 19 education as a whole.
The first, practical emphasis is needed in part to meet the requirements of the national curriculum. But this should go beyond the recognition of achievements based on personal performance and extend to coaching or officiating. A wide variety of sport governing bodies already have awards for 16-year-olds in this direction.
At the same time this practical strand points to the need for depth. The new orders require "increasingly advanced techniques", strategies and tactics. This means that teachers have to plan carefully to take account of what has gone on during key stage 3 as well as catering for individual interests - not a simple task.
The second focus is academic. The existing GCSE physical education and dance courses are indeed academically demanding, with many interesting topics. However, it may no longer be practical to run this academic side separately for a few students, on top of the normal PE lessons. The new GCSE "short course" may well lead to a large increase in the number of examination candidates and a rationalisation of resources.
I would also hope we can promote intelligent students of sport beyond the context of GCSE. There is much to learn and much that can excite young people to become knowledgeable and informed. PE teachers may wish to explore how they can promote the idea of the intelligent and informed spectator.
Remaining with the practical implications, teachers of the new GCSE can capitalise on the new found interest in health-related exercise. Young people need to understand the association between health and physical activity. Unfortunately too many of the GCSE boards still speak of health-related fitness whereas the national curriculum requirements are concerned with health-related exercise: a compulsory component of the PE curriculum but one which is often confused with fitness.
"Fitness" is a legitimate term and should form a major part of knowing how to enhance your performance; but to associate it with health is a very different story. Teachers need to consider carefully how they can separate the issue of fitness for sport on one hand and the association between physical activity and health on the other. Once they make this distinction, GCSE courses can be linked with vocationally based courses.
And it is these vocational courses for students in years 10 and 11 that form the third strand. They offer the starting point for a progressive and coherent route to employment and advanced study and we have to seriously consider their relevance to physical education - not least because leisure and sport offer major employment opportunities. Few schools have explored this avenue to date and their potential remains unfulfilled.
All three strands have major implications for planning and designing a course structure; one that moves from key stage 3 to post-16 study. The sort of course I have in mind allows for progressive learning and the acquisition of competencies. It also provides the basis for A-level physical education, not simply as an academic badge of merit, but as a means of developing a flexible, modular structure that extends into university, the world of sport, exercise and dance, and employment.
Len Almond is Director of the Exercise and Health Group and a senior lecturer in the Department of Physical Education, Sports Science and Recreational Management at Loughborough University.