Using PE to teach vital skills


Government cuts and an obsession with competitive sport is not helpful as schools try to create a true Olympic legacy. Ben Solly looks at how we can engage every pupil in PE and teach wider skills at the same time.

Physical education has always been heralded for its merits in developing teamwork, leadership and communication skills in young people. The Olympics this summer saw the world marvel at the outstanding performances of British athletes, the dedication of the incredible volunteers, and the unity created throughout the country. 

From spectators and athletes to Lord Coe and the prime minister, we heard the term “legacy” used frequently, from the moment London won the bid to the closing ceremony and ever since. 

Figures were published recently, outlining the success of the financial side of the Games, and there are several economic measurements that will be analysed to judge whether the legacy of the Olympics will impact positively on our economy. 

But what of the sporting legacy? Surely we will capitalise on the undeniable success of the Games? Surely, as a nation, we will nurture and foster the budding talents of our young athletes to achieve even greater heights in Rio 2016? 

Most importantly though, surely we will use the momentum and feel good factor of the Games to encourage more young people into sport and a lifelong involvement in physical activity?

Britain has never had such an opportune moment than the present to use sport as a vehicle to change perceptions, raise aspirations and promote healthy lifestyles, so what is our government doing about it? 

Instead of grasping this opportunity with both hands and capitalising on it, we are seeing quite the opposite. The statutory two hours per week curriculum delivery time for PE has been scrapped, 31 school playing fields have been sold off, and last year Mr Cameron stated that PE teachers are “not playing their part”. 

We have witnessed the abolition of the widely successful Sport Sports Partnerships and the deconstruction (along with other school specialisms) of the Sports College movement.

What replaces all of this is a narrow and blinkered focus on competitive sport in schools, which is worryingly but unsurprisingly elitist. Competitive school sport is an essential component of any effective PE department, but it is not for everyone. Competition and traditional games are serious “turn-offs” for a significant number of students, particularly key stage 4 girls.

Encouraging them to become involved in physical activities that they will enjoy and sustain throughout their lives is pivotal to the role of PE teachers, and for some young people competitive sport does not always provide this. 

Yet the focus from the coalition government is to use competition in PE and school sport to increase participation rates (through its School Games initiative).

But if children are to fully engage with sport and physical activity and develop a lifelong love of exercise, then their experiences at school must be broad, varied and enjoyable. Building a passion and love for a sport is critical in sustaining a prolonged involvement in it, and focusing on the competitive element will not only breed elitist attitudes but also exclude the vast majority who do not experience success early on.

So what can schools do to ensure that the momentum and feel-good factor of the Olympics does not fizzle out? First, the leadership team must recognise the importance of PE and sport. If we do embrace the government’s drive on competition, then representing the school should be high profile and recognised as a significant achievement.

Too many students take this privilege for granted and schools should raise the profile of students who represent the school, while linking this representation to the behaviour system and academic progress to ensure these aspects are not overlooked by students.

PE should be held in the same esteem as every other curriculum subject, and many would argue that if you consider growing obesity rates, then PE should be as pivotal as English, maths and ICT in preparing young people for life beyond school. 

Alongside the obvious physiological benefits of school sport, are the skills students develop, such as teamwork, organisation, communication, self-discipline, resilience and ‘bouncebackability’ (thanks Iain Dowie). These are critical in the holistic development of young people

These are also crucial skills in other areas of the curriculum and PE departments should be given opportunities to share their methods of developing these skills in young people to ensure they are effectively transferred across subjects.

In every school I have worked in and visited, PE teachers tend to have positive relationships with students, particularly those who are difficult to reach. Schools should recognise this and allocate CPD training time for these staff to share their methods in engaging challenging students. It is not simply the “release” these students experience in PE that engages them, it is the emotionally intelligent approach from teachers that appeals to young people.

Leadership is the most significant area of PE that develops essential employment and life-skills in young people, and it is during leadership opportunities that I have seen students flourish the most. Sports leadership has been successful in schools for some time now, and for good reason. I have seen some of the most difficult students achieve incredible things when put in front of a group of primary school pupils and asked to coach a sports session. 

Young people thrive when given responsibility and with careful guidance and support, leadership opportunities provide a chance for students to prove themselves in a different light. 

Again, this should not be isolated to PE and sport, leadership should be a key focus in all secondary schools, across all subjects, if we are to develop the skills in our students that are desirable to employers. Just Google “Digital”, “Literacy” or “Numeracy Leaders” and you will find a host of resources and examples of how the sports leadership model has been transferred across subjects.

The government has clearly not demonstrated a commitment to developing the opportunities for young people in sport in either policy decisions or funding. 

Politicians will claim that they are offering school leaders more flexibility and autonomy in how to spend budgets, but in the current educational climate I fear that the necessity to climb league tables will relegate PE to the bottom of the priority list. 

Sadly, the momentum from the Olympics will become lost and the opportunities to capitalise on their remarkable success will be missed. 

Not for the first time then, it will be up to the dedicated professionals and volunteers to continue to provide high-quality opportunities in PE and school sport for the young people in this country.

  • Ben Solly is vice-principal at Long Field Academy (@longfieldmelton) in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. You can follow him on Twitter @ben_solly.


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