PE is being squeezed out of the curriculum due to academic over-testing of children, say teachers
Lord Gus O’Donnell, chair of Pro Bono Economics, says “The rising level of inactivity among schoolchildren represents a ticking timebomb, threatening both their physical and mental health: unless something is done now, we will continue fostering a troubled generation. We need to stop endless academic testing of children that only measures one classroom’s performance against another. Wellbeing should be defined as a measurable target and schools made accountable for achieving it. The focus should be upon producing children who are healthier, happier and better able to make a positive economic and social contribution.”
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Gold medal Paralympian, parliamentarian and Chair of ukactive, says: “Currently inactivity costs the nation £20 billion a year, and every year that we put off fixing this problem it gets bigger and bigger. What we urgently need is a joined-up government-led strategy that provides creative solutions to engage children in becoming more physically active. We’ve already hit the bottom of the league tables on health and wellbeing – surely it’s worth raising the bar.”
British schoolchildren are the least fit they have ever been. Half (51%) of 11-year-old boys and just over a third (38%) of girls in England and Wales do less than two hours of vigorous physical activity a week.1 One in five (20%) 11-year-olds are obese.2
With society’s future health and wellbeing in mind, two thirds of teachers (63%) agree that children at state schools should be doing four hours of PE a week, in line with independent/private schools, new research by charity Pro Bono Economics has found.3
Unfortunately, the heavy emphasis on testing for numeracy, literacy and science, has left schools struggling to deliver even the curriculum’s modest recommendation of two hours of PE a week. This is an ironic development in the face of evidence suggesting that a fit and active lifestyle contributes towards better performance in ‘core’ subjects.
Poor facilities and a lack of specialist teachers – the result of persistent funding constraints – have also contributed to PE’s decline, according to teachers surveyed. As a consequence, more than half (55%) of teachers say they would prefer not to teach PE. One said: “PE is a forgotten subject. It is seen as an intrusion in the school day, which has become so focused on meeting ridiculous targets for numeracy and literacy.” Another commented: “Flat netballs and no pump. We have no field and a small hall and playground. We also have little money for equipment. Teaching PE without these things is like teaching English with no books, or maths without any visual or concrete resources.”
The government has invested £320 million annually in its PE and sport provision for primary schools. In Autumn 2018, after research found that almost 20% of secondary students hated PE lessons, Sport England launched a £13.5m drive to train 17,000 teachers in delivering PE and sport in schools.
Despite these initiatives, only half (50%) of teachers in primary schools and four in ten (43%) in secondary schools say there is adequate provision for PE to support children’s health and wellbeing. The main barriers teachers cite when it comes to satisfactory PE lessons are:
Schools’ excessive focus on pupil testing and on raising attainment in numeracy and literacy, which leaves little time for anything else, particularly in primary schools.
“PE is massively underrated due to heads being concerned about academic progress.”
” In our school, many students aspire to be professional athletes, but the system doesn’t promote PE as being equivalent in value as maths or English. As someone who’s experienced depression during periods of low activity, I can’t emphasise enough how important PE is to learners.”
PE gets dropped in favour of additional lessons and tutoring.
“Pupils in some schools are taken out of PE to do catch-up for other subjects, in both secondary and primary schools.”
Lack of school space, meagre facilities and poor-quality equipment render schools physically unable to deliver two hours of PE each week.
“Battle for space and facilities, especially in the winter, will be a challenge for a lot of schools. The hall is used for lunch, tests and assembly.
Non-existent teacher training
“It is only recently that primary schools have been adequately funded, but schools cannot afford the time to remove any teachers from their day-to-day duties so that training can be given.”
Many teachers lack the confidence to teach PE and sport.
“In the three years at university I only had three days of PE training.”
Children are inhibited by body-image issues and can be put off by competitive sports.
“Outdated facilities and poor body image around changing have a huge impact on pupils’ willingness to try PE. Competitive sport is important but there should be other physical activities offered to less-sporty children, eg fitness classes, dance-style classes, yoga, Pilates, golf, table tennis, walking groups etc.”
Of the 460 primary and 380 secondary teachers questioned, most (81%) would support increasing PE lessons from two to four hours a week, but conditional upon:
i) not having to teach it (55%)
ii) an improvement in the quality of PE lessons, with additional resource for teacher training (23%)
iii) a more inclusive approach to PE, with a move away from competitive sports to engage more children (42%)
Lord Gus O’Donnell, Chair of Pro Bono Economics, the volunteering charity for professional economists, said:
“As a nation we are failing our children. Not only do they do badly academically when compared to other developed countries, they are also at the bottom when it comes their fitness, physical and mental health, and happiness.4,5
“We need to wake up to the fact that rising levels of inactivity among schoolchildren represent a ticking timebomb for both their physical and mental health: unless something is done now, we will continue fostering a troubled generation.
“Of course, we need stronger evidence on what we are getting right, but there is no shortage of evidence on what we are getting wrong. We need to stop endless academic testing of children that only measures one classroom’s performance against another. Wellbeing should be defined as a measurable target and schools should be made accountable for achieving it. The focus should be upon producing children who are healthier, happier and better able to make a positive economic and social contribution.”
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Gold medal Paralympian, parliamentarian and Chair of ukactive:
“Currently inactivity costs the nation £20 billion a year, and every year that we put off fixing this problem it gets bigger and bigger. As a priority we need to improve the provision of physical activity in schools, but we also need to give all children, especially those from low-income families, the opportunity to access and enjoy physical activity outside of the school curriculum. What we urgently need is a joined-up government-led strategy that provides creative solutions to engage children in becoming more physically active. We’ve already hit the bottom of the league tables on health and wellbeing – surely it’s worth raising the bar.”
Research by Pro Bono Economics shows that increased physical activity not only benefits children’s health, but improves school attendance and academic attainment.6
A Pro Bono Economics study, in conjunction with Loughborough University, on behalf of Greenhouse Sports, a London-based charity that uses sport to help young people living in disadvantaged areas of the city to realise their full potential, showed that pupils’ academic success and life chances can be improved through intensive sports coaching and mentoring.
Greenhouse Sports partners with state secondary schools with the aim of enhancing the quality of sports provision, creating opportunities for pupils to participate and excel in a range of activities that are both fun and challenging. Through this model young people develop not just physically, but also socially, emotionally and behaviourally. This is where sports in schools can play a highly valuable role in supporting the wider wellbeing of pupils at every level.
The Pro Bono Economics report, based on a study part-funded by NHS England and conducted by Loughborough University, examined data from over 700 participating pupils at four inner-city London schools. The children involved often had histories of poor attendance and academic attainment; some were on the cusp of being excluded. The findings of the report show that on average:
- 36% of Greenhouse Sports pupils exercised for more than 60 minutes a day, a figure twice the London average of 16%.
- Engagement with Greenhouse Sports also accounted for an average annual attendance increase of eight more days of school.
- Greenhouse Sports participants outperformed their peers by up to a third of a grade in English and 40% of a grade in Maths.
Greenhouse Sports’ Chief Executive, John Herriman said:
“At Greenhouse Sports we believe in – and have evidence to prove – the real benefits of physical activity for young people. We know that high-quality, structured sports coaching and mentoring offers huge benefits. This survey highlights that children are not getting enough structured physical exercise and that more opportunities need to be created for young people to experience the full benefits of sports and physical activity, not just for their physical development, but for their social, emotional and behavioural development too. The evidence tells us that sports education, when delivered well, can support young people’s wider wellbeing, so it can only be a positive move to make more time for sports in schools through extra-curricular activity and increased provision of PE lessons. If we really care about our kids, then we have to fix this problem now, before it’s too late.”
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NOTES TO EDITORS
About Pro Bono Economics:
Pro Bono Economics helps charities and social enterprises understand and improve the impact and value of their work, matching professional economists who want to use their skills to volunteer with charities. Set up in 2009, Pro Bono Economics has helped over 400 charities large and small, covering a wide range of issues including mental health, education, employment and complex needs.
Pro Bono Economics is supported by high-profile economists, including Andy Haldane (Bank of England), Sir Dave Ramsden (Bank of England), and Clare Lombardelli (HM Treasury) as Trustees, and Diane Coyle (University of Cambridge), Kate Barker, Lord Jim O’Neill, Robert Peston, Martin Wolf and Lord Adair Turner as patrons. Lord Gus O’Donnell has been Chair of the Board of Trustees since September 2016.
- Health Behaviour in school-aged children: Growing up unequal 2013-2014 Study
- NHS Digital
- YouGov, TeacherTrack survey, 840 teachers in the UK. Fieldwork was undertaken between 22/02/2019 – 07/03/2019.
- Pro Bono Economics scoping study of Greenhouse Sports, December 2017, https://www.probonoeconomics.com/news/new-report-greenhouse-sports