Why heads of PE are the real champions of sports day

PE leads are often last on the list for recognition, until sports day – then all eyes are on them, writes Emma Turner

Heads of PE rarely get the recognition they deserve - and on school sports day everyone expects them to deliver, writes Emma Turner

Primary schools deliver PE throughout the year, it’s true. But too often the subject is sidelined when it comes to CPD and staff training. This means that the PE subject lead is a lone wolf when it comes to organising the inter-schools events, promoting participation and cheerleading their mini squads with all the fervour of an Olympic crowd. And, sadly, it’s unusual for them to receive the recognition they deserve.

Until sports day that is. On sports day, everything changes. It’s the only event in which the whole school – every teacher, every pupil, every aspect of behaviour and organisation – is on show at the same time. And, more often than not, it’s all organised by one individual: the PE lead.

The planning begins with a staff meeting discussion of how much of the day will be devoted to taking part in activities for all and how much will be traditional races and events. The staff fall into two camps – the racers and the taking-parters. The end result is usually an amalgamation of the wishes of both camps, which means the PE lead needs to organise a round robin of inclusive activities as well as presiding over the hallowed running track prep for the sprints.

In the following weeks, classes will traipse out on to the yet-to-be-mown track at the far end of the field to take part in the heats. Children will do their best not to twist their ankle when hurtling towards their clipboard-wielding teacher, who will be wrestling with a flapping list and a pen – silently praying they don’t make a faux pas and list the wrong children for the big day.

The premises officer will be tasked with finding aerial maps of the school grounds upon which the PE lead will outline the layout of the activities with the precision of a military planning operation. Groups will be drawn up, relisted and drawn again upon the realisation that the football and netball team have ended up together in one group and that one group contains only children from EYFS.

Throughout all this, the SLT will be feverishly watching the weather reports. How hot would be too hot? How wet is too wet? Do we cancel for wind? Do we mitigate for bad light like in cricket? Has anyone considered a “fog” contingency plan?

A back-up date is sent out to all parents along with the aerial view letter and a description of where to go and what the children need. The aim is to fit this on one A4 letter, but in reality it involves a multi-coloured set of documents complete with staples and a wafting permission slip.

School sports day: Ready, steady, go...

On the day, the sleepless PE leader will roam frantically from class to class, replacing lost maps and trying to explain how the Quicksticks hockey marker weaving and bean bag jump relay are going to work. Staff nod knowingly but nevertheless arrive bemused at their station of multi-markers, airflow balls and arrowed stick-man diagrams.

Usually one person is in charge of the hooter. Airhorn responsibility is usually bequeathed to those of senior rank, or for this one day, it may be the PE lead themselveswho steps up to the mark. This horn is a call to arms for all the assembled ranks: from crumpled T-shirted infants to Year 6s in football shirts. All are petrified of the horn: a tableaux of sport across the field every time it blares.

Instructions are missed as children wave frantically to parents, grandparents and toddlers in pushchairs being wobbled across the field. Parents bemoan their footwear choice. Those in flip-flops find their feet soaking, those in workwear sigh as their heels sink into the wet field or the inevitable tidemark creeps along their shoes.

At the sides of the field, the PTA work tirelessly to make teas and coffees and hand out yet more copies of the aerial map. Parents twist it, squinting, mouths downturned as they try and work out what exactly is a MUGA and where do they mean when they say "KS2 steps"?

Throughout the morning, the air is punctuated by the shrill scream of multiple whistles. The round-robin events are in full swing and never in the history of sport has there been so many different uses for a cone and a bean bag. The children cheer and encourage each other as they grapple with ill-sized equipment, their nerves and the excitement of the day. Cross-legged seating plans soon descend into kneeling encouragement and finally jumping ecstatic celebrations. The teachers stare rather blankly at the carefully crafted instructions and score sheets. How many points was it for a successful ring toss and how many footballs needed to be put into the net to score a full house?

Under a gazebo, depending on the weather, children arrive either pink-cheeked or shivering. Water bottles in trays are collected, guzzled and returned. The children bounce around on the benches waiting for their next event as their parents angle to get a picture of them that doesn’t accidentally contain anyone else’s children. Inevitably, the only way they can do it is when their child is swigging from their water bottle.

When the round robins are over, there is the triple hoot from the air horn and the children assemble with their parents en masse for the final sporting event of the day: the sprints.

Year group by year group, those successful in the heats will be called up to the head of the track. They are cheered on by their classmates and double-checked by the PE lead, who by now has an entire ream of paper on their clipboard, an air horn clutched in their armpit and the eyes of the entire crowd on them.

One competitor will have disappeared to the toilet, another will have a sudden attack of stage fright and then teachers will question whether or not they’re actually in school today and if it’s time to use one of the reserves from the heats.

Each group is finally assembled and the PE lead takes the role of metaphorical pistol firer as they set off each sprint group down the now freshly mown and painted track. The calling of the winner is usually delegated to the head or someone else with sufficient seniority or skin thick enough to deal with any potential flurry of complaints should there be a photo finish.

Everyone's a winner

Then, after the duly official celebrations of taking part and the awarding of the stickers and certificates for the sprints, the field will empty. Children will return to class and parents will trickle home.

SLT are busy handshaking, chatting to parents and ensuring all children are safely back in class and the building is secure.

Back on the field, you will find two comrades, united in joy that another sports day has been navigated without incident and with thankfully no deluge, despite the forecast.

The PE leader and the premises officer will look knowingly at each other as they observe the Year 6s collating the sporting detritus from the field and hauling it back to the PE store. As they survey the fluttering discarded aerial maps and begin to dismantle the gazebo, they can be sure that today was a job well done.

So, to all PE leads out there (including my former colleague Chris Jameson), thank you for your work and your organisation and this year, we’ll try not to lose the maps.

Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Trust, Leicestershire

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