Exercise in progress
If you doubt that PE teaching in primary schools has improved, then let me tell you of the early Sixties, when teachers' dress for refereeing football might include a belted navy-blue raincoat and cycle clips.
There were good teachers, too, of course, and there were some legendary and highly interventionist local authority "organisers", which is what advisers were in those days. The point is, though, that before the national curriculum, and given the hit-or-miss likelihood of a school having a trained specialist, the quality of teaching was once patchy to say the least. Improvement has come through the national curriculum itself, through support for non-specialist co-ordinators and teachers, and through society's increasing awareness that school should somehow try to counteract the effects of the increasingly inactive lives our children lead.
In the primary sector, though, the lead at school level has to come from the co-ordinators - people such as Patrick Potter of Withymoor primary in Dudley. Patrick's story is typical. A non-specialist (his degree is in psychology and sociology) he had a general interest in physical activity and found himself at the outset of his career, six years ago, looking after out-of-school sport. "I took over football, and I had to learn about it from scratch."
Once in that niche, he saw that PE was becoming a priority in the school. He decided to stay with it, and became responsible for the subject at the beginning of this school year. In most primary schools all the subject co-ordinators are class teachers, which makes it difficult for them to see lessons in progress. This is a particular problem for an active subject such as PE, as Patrick Potter acknowledges. "It's impractical for me to go and show everyone how it should be taught. All I can do is talk to individual teachers and year-group teams - in staff meetings, on INSET days, and in our own time."
That he has the authority and confidence to exercise this leadership, having had no initial specialist training, is very much down to the support of the local authority. Patrick has been on a Grants for Education Support and Training (GEST) funded course run by the Dudley PE advisory team, and also relies heavily on the authority's stream of practical printed resources. Peter Whitlam, Dudley's PE adviser, believes that what non-specialists need is confidence. This, he suggests, has less to do with specialist knowledge than with "worries about safety and large group organisation". Many excellent teachers, he feels, "do not realise that they can take their classroom skills into the different environment".
For this reason, since the advent of national curriculum PE, explains Peter Whitlam, "Every primary teacher has had advisory teacher support in school for a maximum of three lessons - in their own hall, with their own children".
I saw just how confident and effective a well-supported, non-specialist can be when I watched Patrick taking a gymnastics lesson with his Y5 class. After a well-disciplined warm-up and exploration of different movements, the children put together individual sequences of balances - "dish", "shoulder", "arabesque", "V-sit", with different kinds of movement in between. Some of them used mats and tried headstands. Around the room, for children to refer to if they wished, Patrick had placed pictures of the various balances, photocopied from Dudley PE support documents. It was an impressive lesson - controlled, satisfying and demonstrating progress from start to finish. Patrick constantly praised children who showed good understanding of what was needed and allowed them to demonstrate. It was just the sort of authoritative lesson, in fact, that once upon a time would have been the hallmark of a specialist teacher.
Dorothy Ledgard, a PE specialist at Wolverhampton University who works with the Dudley team on the course, nodded approvingly when I told her about Patrick Potter's work. His emphasis on progression through the school, and his insistence on thoughtful movement work in the hall, echoed her own priorities. One of the issues she discusses with co-ordinators is that of progression -"across a unit of work, across a lesson, across the whole school. We try to see, for example, what the same activity might look like at Y1 and at Y6. "
She is very keen on the idea that children should demonstrate good movement, and emphasises that teachers need to be helped to recognise it when they see it.
Training co-ordinators, of course, is only one way to improve the teaching of PE. Peter Whitlam believes that lack of teacher confidence comes partly from the lack of PE content in primary BEd courses. "A total of 20 to 25 hours on PE is typical, though some have none at all and others as little as six hours. "
Dorothy Ledgard echoed this from her own experience at Wolverhampton, where all primary BEd students have a compulsory 45-hour module of PE. "Many come with negative memories - they were never taught to understand what they were doing, they have done no dance, and they hated games. So I have this cathartic first lecture where they all unload their feelings about the subject."
Building enthusiasm for PE into young teachers who have had negative experiences is clearly a challenge. That it is vital to the cause of the subject, though, is implicit in Dorothy Ledgard's belief that one of the aims is to help children to enjoy what for many are the unfamiliar sensations that come from pushing themselves physically.
Finally, we need the downbeat reminder of how difficult it is becoming for all local authorities to provide good in-school advisory support. In 1988, when Dudley started its national curriculum support programme there were 4.5 PE advisory teachers. Now there are 1.5. "We still operate to the same principles, but we're slower than we were."
* Dudley's PE Resource File Physical Education for Key Stages 1 and 2: Policy into Practice is for sale.Enquiries to Peter Whitlam, PE adviser, Saltwells EDC. Bowling Green Road, Netherton, Dudley DY2 9LY