Olympic talent pool

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
It is essential that workforce reforms do not undermine the ability of primary staff to teach sport, writes Margaret Talbot

Physical education has come a long way in the past five years. It has benefited from the high political profile now enjoyed by sport, and the conviction of the Prime Minister and sports minister that investing in sport offers wider advantages, in terms of health, social inclusion and combating crime.

London's success in winning the 2012 Olympics has raised sport even higher on the political agenda and the opportunities that hosting the games provides for helping to engage and sustain young people's participation in sport are enormous. The Olympics are seen not only as the basis for creating a pool of talent that will bring medals in 2012, but also as a means to regenerate and invest in our sporting infrastructure.

The Government has invested significantly in teachers' professional development programmes in PE, to support the target for raising the percentage of children receiving at least two hours' high quality PE. But thousands of teachers have not yet accessed these programmes, so delivering the subject still seems an overwhelming challenge for them.

Many teachers in primary schools have been woefully inadequately prepared to teach PE, after initial training offering no more than five hours'

preparation.

The case for better joined-up policy between education and sport is overwhelming. PE offers a foundation for sound physical development and for acquiring the skills, confidence and understanding that children need to make informed choices about their future participation in sport. Or it should. But as a classic example of "the law of unintended consequence", the way in which workforce reform in education is being implemented by some head teachers is threatening to undermine that secure foundation.

During the past decade, teachers of PE have welcomed working with coaches and sport and dance development officers, who enhance the range and quality of school sport. This not only enriches children's experiences; it helps to build links between school and community systems, and encourages young people to continue their participation after leaving school.

But all children need the foundation for developing the skills, understanding and confidence that high quality PE provides, before developing more specialist sports skills.

Most qualified sport coaches and development officers appreciate that their role is to support and enhance teachers' delivery, not to displace or replace it; and there are excellent examples of high quality delivery by well-qualified consortia and groups with appropriate qualifications and preparation. When everyone in the system appreciates these principles, the opportunities offered for workforce reform can further enhance children's experiences.

But if the proposals are interpreted cynically or in an uninformed way, workforce reform could directly threaten the foundation of co-ordinated sport and education policy, by displacing PE.

Recently, a headteacher was reported (TES, October 23) as having commissioned a professional football club to deliver the school's PE lessons. The school planned to spend a term focusing on football, followed by a term on fitness and health and a term on "a range of sports". The head's stated intention was to lower cost, free teachers' time for preparation, and introduce specialist expertise. But such a model satisfies none of the criteria for "high quality physical education" and offers no opportunity for the school's teachers to build capacity to deliver PE in the future.

The best quality PE in primary schools is delivered by primary teachers who know their pupils, have received appropriate initial teacher training or professional development, and understand their pupils' needs for achievement and progression.

This is the purpose of the current investment in CPD, school sport co-ordinators and primary link teachers for PE. Heads who commit to this can be sure that the statutory requirements for national curriculum PE are being met, the safety of children is assured and the criteria for "high quality" delivery are fulfilled.

This is rarely possible if programmes are delivered by people who may possess high level specific sporting skills, but have limited knowledge of the national curriculum and may have limited experience of working with young children across the whole ability range.

The opportunities for cross-curricular work, like that offered by Olympic education, with its contributions to so many different areas of learning, including ethical and responsible sporting behaviour, will also be lost.

It is not surprising that some heads choose means of delivery that seem to offer specialist services in sport coaching, if they are unaware of how they can manage delivery of high quality PE. But guidance is available - from the subject associations for PE (www.baalpe.org and www.pea.uk.com).

The PE profession urges all headteachers to consider this guidance carefully, before making decisions which could undermine high quality delivery, limit their own teachers' capacity and fall short of statutory requirements. This would not merely be a lost opportunity for their schools and pupils - it could also weaken the strategy to develop a talent pool for the 2012 Olympics.

Professor Margaret Talbot is chief executive of the Association for Physical Education

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