Raise the game to give PE its place

29th October 2004 at 01:00
The curriculum review must be prepared to take calculated risks to make pupils more active, says Malcolm Thorburn

A less than necessary research study recently asserted that secondary school teachers could be categorised by subject. Accordingly, PE teachers were typified by being loudest of all staff and gregarious in nature. Well, at an initial level of analysis, so far so good. And the virtues of being described as such should not be entirely underestimated. We need staff who can add a sense of bonhomie to the school day.

But underneath there is often unease about subject status. While PE has been included in the curriculum for hundreds of years, the reasons have often varied. And this is the case at present, with PE as close to centre-stage as it gets; a new set of priorities for health, obesity, increased participation and sport in the community dominate Scottish Executive thinking and are reflected in a raft of initiatives. PE teaching no longer exists on its own, but is linked to active schools programmes, national priorities for education and Sportscotland targets. New jobs abound. Try finding replacement cover for an absent PE teacher.

But while the review group's report on PE is strong on aspiration it does not highlight questions that need asking and problems that need to be overtaken. The overall effect is to challenge PE teachers to change; to view the contribution PE can make with the widest possible lens and avoid trying to protect what has existed before. Gone are the days when simple activity-based programmes could be rolled out year after year. Near enough is no longer good enough.

A starting point for progress is to recognise the new professional demands associated with the curriculum of the future. While the headline statements have been about "two hours of PE a week" and "PE for all" the three implicit messages are: improved primary PE teaching, a wider range of activities in secondary schools and closer articulation of programmes in schools with the communities they serve. In short, for student experiences to be matched against national needs.

Key foundation skills are necessary in primary PE programmes. Ensuring that content is developmentally appropriate helps raise ability levels. Try justifying to pupils the planned links between badminton and self-esteem if they cannot hit the shuttlecock.

In secondary schools, PE must provide credible choices. It is all too easy for a policy based on inclusion to represent exclusion in practice. Outdoor hockey and cross-country running, for example, only do it for some pupils, however good the teaching. A whole host of activities - dance, yoga, exercise to music and martial arts - might interest many more pupils.

A more significant issue is that justifications must get beyond "fun" and "enjoyment" reasoning to a coherent view about developing intelligent, informed participation. Scotland has some glorious examples of best practice and these should be shared. The loss of a local authority advisory service is keenly felt in this respect.

Elsewhere, many countries have realised that the trick is to create a culture of voluntary rather than compulsory participation as an antecedent for lifelong physical activity. "Sport education", with its emphasis on team ethos, adopting different sporting roles, sports festivals and linking sporting involvement to the extended school day and the local community, is worth considering. The time is right for calculated risk-taking. In attempting to find curriculum security, based on merit rather than convenience, PE must break away from the dependency culture of the past, take responsibility and critically consider the best way forward - working with evidence-based research.

Some of the mistakes of the past should be challenged in the forthcoming curriculum review - for example, the notion that PE is an expressive arts subject at 5-14. This has created endless interpretation problems for PE.

The joke in 1990 was that it would take 5-14 years to implement, so incomprehensible were the arrangements. This is fast becoming an underestimate. PE as PE, a distinct area of study in the curriculum, would be better, but only if it is high quality.

What Scotland is trying to achieve with its "PE for all" message is a high tariff manoeuvre. At present, the Government is doing what it does at uneasy moments - it creates employment at vast expense to the taxpayer.

Some 630 active school co-ordinator posts and 400 extra PE teaching posts have been agreed. We have a tsar for physical activity.

If the money committed leads to the PE profession showing genuine enterprise in introducing exciting new courses, where programmes achieve a multitude of aims based on a clearly articulated view of learning and where participation increases are sustained, then the benefits will justify the cost. No one will be happier than me.

Malcolm Thorburn is a lecturer and programme co-ordinator for PE at Moray House School of Education, Edinburgh University.

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