Sport is more than just games


Continuing her focus on physical activity, Karen Sullivan argues why increasing time for sport will increase student performance generally

In my last column, we looked at the significant benefits of regular exercise for students – not just for overall physical health, but the wealth of research suggesting that sport improves everything from cognition and academic achievement to self-esteem, social skills and even empathy and a reduced risk of suicide and risky behaviours.

Despite the clear and mounting evidence that exercise, in the form of daily games or PE lessons, can do more to improve our students’ health, wellbeing, future prospects, emotional and physical development and even grades, this part of the curriculum is sadly underplayed and under-supported.

One study in 2013 looked at key stage 3 PE and highlighted the impact on life-skills, concluding that high-quality PE, alongside the continued development of physical skills, improved: resilience (mental toughness, self-belief, determination, applied effort); responsibility (self-control, self-reflection); self-motivation (desire to achieve); integrity (honesty, reliability, respect for others, empathy and compassion); self-management (setting/achieving goals, organising time, taking initiative, working independently).

Interpersonal skills and behaviours benefit, with improved communication (listening/speaking, interpreting, giving feedback); collaboration (working together, sharing goals, developing trust); empathy (relating and connecting to others); and motivation and influence (leading and inspiring others).

Stead & Neville (2010) concluded that: “Physical education, physical activity and sport have been shown to impact positively on the extent to which young people feel connected to their school; the aspirations of young people; the extent to which positive social behaviours exist within school; and the development of leadership and citizenship skills.”

Chaddock (2012) said: “More physically fit children have improved brain function, higher academic achievement scores and superior cognitive performance than less fit children.”

So what is high-quality PE? A document published under the last government listed 10 outcomes for the young people involved (See At present the government recommends a minimum of two hours per week, but is that enough? Interestingly, other countries seem to have a more robust approach. For example, the WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health suggests that youths aged 12 to 17 should have at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity activities every day – guidance adopted by countries like Canada and France, who aim to achieve this within teaching time. 

In 2009/10, the average curriculum time spent on PE and sport in secondary schools in the UK was between 102 and 107 minutes per week, with only about six per cent of schools getting three hours of PE and sport within school time. It’s worth noting that despite all European countries recognising the importance of PE at school (making it part of a central curriculum framework, and compulsory in primary and lower secondary education), there are still only 50 to 80 hours a year of teaching time devoted to it.

This is despite the fact that Ericsson (2008) found that increasing physical activity lessons from twice a week to daily has a significant effect on academic achievements in maths, reading and writing, and Dexter (1999) showed that performance in certain sports, including football, netball, hockey and athletics, were positively associated with higher GCSE results in maths and English.

While pressures on teaching time are definitely high as it is, it would be interesting to see the results of schools swapping around the lessons to prioritise a daily PE lesson. How much does your school offer? We’d love to hear your stories.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email


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