The winning streak

13th August 2010 at 01:00
Lardy blokes only ever seen on the playing fields or in the gym, and the butt of staffroom jokes . If PE teachers were ever like this, they're certainly not now. Jeremy Sutcliffe reports on a new generation of school leaders.

When Martin Callagher first entered teaching, PE was seen as a backwater. If there was a pecking order in schools, then PE teachers came somewhere near the bottom.

Career progression was often limited to becoming head of department, while job satisfaction was restricted by a fairly monotonous diet: for boys it was football or rugby in winter, cricket in summer; for girls it was hockey and netball followed by rounders or tennis, with athletics thrown in for both sexes.

"There was a time when people saw PE teaching as a secondary career," Mr Callagher says. "They went into it because they hadn't quite made it in sport."

It is a different picture now, however. The last decade has seen a transformation in the status of PE teachers, from also-rans to leaders of the pack. And, 30 years after he joined the profession, Mr Callagher is head of Corpus Christi Catholic Sports College in Preston, Lancashire, and an example of the heights PE teachers can reach. "There has been this misconception over the years that PE teachers come from the same mould as the games teacher in Kes (the 1969 film featuring actor Brian Glover as the PE teacher), but the reality is not like that at all," he says.

"PE teachers have always been discerning, but it's more highlighted now because of the development of sports colleges and the increased focus on leadership - not just in sport but across the whole school."

The result is a radical change in PE teachers' prospects, and how they are viewed by colleagues. "It's a popular option for people who want to make a career in teaching," says Mr Callagher. "It has become a career of first choice."

PE teachers still have some way to go to match the achievements of other subject specialists. A survey by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) in 2007 found that around 3 per cent of members of senior management teams had a PE background, comparable with music, RE and business studies, although well behind science teachers, who made up 18.5 per cent of SMT, English (14 per cent) and history (13 per cent). But there are signs the PE teachers' star is on the rise.

Rob Kitching puts much of the rise in PE's status down to it becoming an examinable subject, and therefore one in which pupils could gain a qualification. Not only did this bestow academic rigour, it also meant that for the first time PE could count towards a school's position in league tables.

"When I started, it was very much a low-profile subject. The perception used to be that PE teachers were just playing games," says Mr Kitching. "The introduction of GCSE, AS and A-level PE in the 1990s gave it a higher profile."

Mr Kitching trained as a PE teacher in Leeds and became head of department three years later. His career might have peaked there but for an opportunity when he was at Churchill Community College in Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, to write what turned out to be a successful bid to become a sports college. This led to promotion to assistant head at Churchill, then director of sport at Ashington High School Sports College in Northumberland, where he is now principal.

Mr Kitching believes that PE teachers were well-placed to benefit once exams had given the subject intellectual respectability. "In the past two years I have gone from being director of sport to acting head, and am now in headship," he says.

"In the past, PE staff went into pastoral roles in order to move into leadership. That was not just by luck. PE teachers are generally good at forming positive relationships with students."

This trend has been given added momentum by the specialist schools movement and the arrival of sport as a specialism on the same level as maths, English, computing and any other subject. Sport has proved a popular specialism since the first 11 sports colleges opened in 1996. There are now 501 schools with a sports specialism - about one in seven of all specialist schools. This has opened up opportunities for PE teachers to develop a school-wide role.

"PE teachers now are moving into leadership roles right across the school," says Mr Kitching. "There's a whole raft of senior leadership posts, and that's down to the impact of the specialism on the development of the whole school, particularly on teaching and learning."

These opportunities have been embraced wholeheartedly by Dave Bullock, a PE teacher who has been deputy head at Verulam School in St Albans since the beginning of this year. He sees his appointment as director of sport at Lea Valley High in Enfield, north London, as a pivotal moment in his career.

"That led to a whole-school impact because I was looking at projects across the school, not just to do with PE," he says. "A lot of good practice happens in PE, so I looked at how we can get that into other lessons. I also looked at international links and how we could improve leadership across the school."

When Mr Bullock began teaching 12 years ago, he says PE teachers were the regular butt of staffroom jokes. But those days are gone now: Mr Bullock embodies the change in PE from a largely practical to a respected academic subject. For the past five years, he has taught almost entirely in the classroom rather than on the playing fields. "I have hardly taught any practical PE in that time," he says. "PE teachers have much more credibility now."

He believes that they are particularly well-suited to leadership positions. When he was at Lea Valley, four members of the school's leadership team were PE teachers. "I know a lot of senior members of staff who have a PE background," he says.

"The skill-set of PE teachers lends itself to developing teams, engendering effective leadership, motivating people and coming up with ideas."

PE teachers are also at an advantage when it comes to behaviour management, Mr Bullock says, which further enhances their suitability for senior roles. "We see pupils in a different environment and they tend to have a different relationship with PE teachers," he says. "PE teachers know what the children enjoy, and sport offers them a relief from the stress of academic learning."

Lisa Austin is another PE teacher on the path towards headship. At 34, she is director of sport and assistant head at Flixton Girls' High School and Sports College in Manchester, and has just completed her National Professional Qualification for Headship.

She says part of the reason for the new status attached to PE is that the sport ethos is applicable across the school. "We have taken the core values of sport - teamwork, leadership and coaching - and used them to underpin everything we do," she says.

"When sports colleges first came in, there might have been a perception that directors of specialism were elevated heads of PE. But actually the role is about using the power of sport to support and enhance learning, behaviour, ethos and opportunities across the school."

She believes sport has an ability to connect with pupils who may otherwise become disillusioned with school, and a recognition of its possibilities has led to a reappraisal of the place of PE in school.

"Sport can make a difference even to non-sporty children," she says. "We have a lot of problems in society today - anti-social behaviour, gang culture in inner cities, rising obesity, for example - and I believe sport and physical activity can and does provide a solution."

Proving that sport can influence other areas of the curriculum, the sports department at Flixton has taken a lead in a number of successful projects targeting pupils who had become disengaged in lessons. In one, a group of girls who were underperforming in GCSE English were encouraged to put together presentations about their sporting achievements. Every pupil involved improved their predicted result by a whole grade.

In another project, a group of girls who were in danger of becoming disaffected were given a crash-course in outdoor education: activities included horse-riding, mountain-biking and canoeing. "It really improved their confidence and self-esteem, as well as their attendance and punctuality," says Ms Austin.

Her leadership responsibilities extend far beyond Flixton. The school is the "hub site" for the 42 schools in the North Trafford School Sport Partnership. Ms Austin's role in overseeing the partnership also encompasses developing links with parents. On a practical level, this involves taking a Friday morning spinning class which consists of a work- out on exercise bikes.

But it is as an engine for school improvement that Lisa and her colleagues really make their mark. "In a sports college, PE and dance are at the heart of the curriculum and are as valued as English and maths," she says. "The PE department takes the lead role in disseminating good practice in teaching and learning."

Even outside leadership positions, the role of the PE teacher has changed beyond all recognition, partly because of an explosion in the range of sports that schools offer. No longer are pupils limited to a handful of sports: many schools now offer dozens of activities that would have been unheard of just a short time ago. Mr Callagher has watched this evolution over the course of his 30-year career.

"When I started, you did football outside in the winter and cricket in the summer. It was team games, by and large," he says. "Now our pupils can do lacrosse, handball, canoeing, outdoor pursuits and free-running. Dance, especially street dance, is massive."

Rob Walden, director of sport and assistant headteacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, has overseen the introduction of an array of new sporting activities at the 1,400-pupil comprehensive, ranging from martial arts to ballet, the latter through a partnership with the Royal Ballet School.

"Over the past decade or so there's been a quiet revolution in school sport," Mr Walden says. "PE teachers now have a whole network of people with specialist skills and approaches to draw on. The number of specialist posts has grown massively - probably by 50 per cent, or even more - and there are many more opportunities to develop skills and move into higher posts."

He believes PE teachers can bring a high level of psychological understanding to relationships with pupils and parents. "While the perception might be of rugby-playing jocks, in reality PE teachers have a high degree of confidence and the ability to think about logistics because of the multiple contexts in which they work," he says. "We are not confined to the classroom but work on the playing field, in the gym and throughout the school."

The expansion in the range of sports that schools now offer is partly in response to a realisation of the potential for sport to improve results across the board. As Ms Austin devised sports-related projects to help flagging pupils, Dave Botes, director of sport and assistant head at Corpus Christi Catholic Sports College, has developed a programme to boost the achievement of GCSE students on the grade C-D borderline in English, maths and science.

The award-winning project uses Wayne Rooney's body fat and weight-loss statistics during the course of a match to enliven maths lessons. His latest initiative is to employ a sports psychologist to help pupils and staff set and achieve goals.

Mr Callagher, his headteacher, says that this approach shows how the skills now used in teaching PE can be successfully applied to other areas of the curriculum. "The GCSE course is something like 60 per cent practical to 40 per cent theory," he says. "The children really enjoy the psychology, sociology and physiology of sport, and they learn a lot from it.

"They understand the reason why a coach might say a particular thing to them, such as the importance of warm-ups and cool-downs after taking part in activity," he continues. "When I first started in PE it was very much about doing an activity. Now it's much more about understanding the principles - why we are doing those things."

Proof that sport can be used as a vehicle to drive whole-school improvement lies in the fact that sports colleges are the fastest improving of all the specialist colleges. According to the Youth Sport Trust, the proportion of pupils in sports colleges gaining five A*-C grades, including English and maths, has risen from 40 to 47 per cent over the past three years - almost twice the national average increase for secondary schools (see box, page 12).

Improvement has been most marked in sports colleges that have struggled in the past, with the proportion classed as National Challenge schools falling from 22 per cent in 2008 to 11 per cent in 2009 - thanks to an average GCSE improvement of 8 percentage points.

Annette Montague, schools director for the Youth Sport Trust, says specialist sports colleges' track record has been an important factor in boosting the image of PE teachers. "PE teachers are now very much involved in school improvement and developing a positive ethos," she says. "Many sports colleges place an emphasis on developing leadership across the school, competitive opportunities and team-building. All these things have emanated from PE practice."

She says PE teachers have always made good leaders. They have skills in building relationships, use competitive and group-work as a matter of course, and have keen motivational skills. They are also particularly well-placed to work with disaffected pupils.

PE teachers are also used to watching each other and sharing tips, says Mr Kitching. At his school, this level of co-operation has inspired Teaching Triplets, a system where teachers from three departments watch each other teach. "Part of the coaching experience is we are not frightened to challenge each other about teaching and learning on a daily basis," he says. "That challenge can only improve good practice," he says.

Old stereotypes die hard: PE teachers are still the butt of staffroom jokes. However, as more rise through the ranks to senior leadership, that image is gradually fading, to be replaced by one of a member of staff who has a lot to offer the rest of the school. "It has almost become OK to be a PE teacher," says Mr Bullock. They may have the last laugh.

Rob Kitching trained as a PE teacher and is now a head. He says the rise of PE is down to it becoming an examinable subject. Martin Callagher (pictured opposite) also became a head after starting his career as a PE teacher

Dave Botes developed a programme using sports to boost the achievement of GCSE pupils across the curriculum at Corpus Christi Catholic Sports College.

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