Twenty wasted years for PE in Scotland

27th August 2004 at 01:00
Fitness for all was undermined by the doomed decision to make a big push for certification, says John Cairney

Shortly before I left teaching, my department was subjected to a rigorous three-day visitation as part of a whole-school inspection. On the third day, during a tete-...-tete with the HMI concerned, he remarked: "In many ways, John, you have been a great loss to the profession."

The comment was not as cryptic as it might sound. During the early 1980s when the PE certification bandwagon started rolling, I was one of a group of teachers who urged caution. I was more vociferous than most in articulating my concerns that there were other routes the subject could take. To support my personal views, I frequently quoted the statement of the Dunning report on assessment that "the main contribution of PE will continue to be in the non-examined area".

Eventually, at a conference in Stirling University organised by the Educational Institute of Scotland, these concerns were formulated into a Manifesto For Physical Education in Scotland, calling for a minimum of two hours of PE per week between the ages of three and 18, more specialist input in primary schools and practical subject status. Our short-lived mantra was "Physical education for all."

"Short-lived" because, simultaneously with our necessarily limited efforts, the campaign to deliver the subject into the hands of the certification zealots was being planned by an unrepresentative officer corps of inspectors, advisers and college staff, supported by a hand-picked cohort of NCOs composed of secondary school principals and teachers, many of whom were later promoted to the officer corps.

At the time, I wrote a number of articles about my concerns regarding the probable effects of certification, including the fear that "core PE" available to all pupils would suffer as the (as yet unknown) demands of developing, teaching, monitoring and assessing nationally certificated courses took over the time of teachers.

When it became obvious that the manifesto was not to be manifested, I resolved to hold fast to the tenets, as much as I could, within my own department and rewrote the departmental policy on this basis. The policy, supported by my staff and the school management, was predicated on the geographical, social and economic realities of my school's catchment area and intended to ensure that what we had to offer was available to every pupil. Eventual certification was not ruled out; it was put in its place.

In fourth, then later in third year, options were on offer leading to Scotvec modules at appropriate levels.

Hopefully this brief history will explain why I experienced a scene of dej... vu when the conclusions of the PE review group were recently published. No doubt with the increased powers of headteachers to apply curriculum flexibility in mind, the group body-swerved the compulsory two hours of PE but, significantly, did not rule it out as an aspiration.

"Every primary cluster will have adequate access to support from a PE specialist", extra staffing is planned to "accommodate flexible class-size in secondary" and schools "should" increase quality PE for all young people between the ages of three and 18. Snap!

By trying to "reverse the decline in core PE and general activity levels", the group's members acknowledge the damage that has been done, though political correctness prevented them from ascribing any "blame" to the role of certification in creating a situation that is now thought in need of reversal. Less sensitive souls like myself would have no such qualms. So why am I not turning somersaults at the fact that a national review has made recommendations compatible with those of myself and others 20 years ago? Apart from the obvious physical reasons, I harbour serious concerns.

First, they are only "recommendations" and may not have the desired impact.

Welcome as the group's conclusions are, and the apparent commitment of the Education Minister in supporting them, I feel that the managerial and organisational realities, especially in secondary schools, will create significant obstacles. As long as headteachers feel under pressure to produce discernible "results" they will continue to plunder time from wherever it is seen to be available and core PE fits the bill perfectly.

It would be over-egging the pudding to suggest that the past 20 years have been wasted as far as the subject is concerned, but it cannot be denied that opportunities have been squandered and the best that can be said is that the PE review has recognised this.

As far as my own modest contribution is concerned, I can always balance the inspector's comment about being "a great loss to the profession" with that of one of my former peers in Glasgow who, during a fraught meeting of PE principals discussing the arrangements for the incoming Higher grade exam, said: "We should have listened to John Cairney years ago."

John Cairney was principal teacher of physical education at All Saints Secondary in Glasgow.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today