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The wrong horse for the life course?: Offerings in physical education aren’t representative of lifelong activities

Volume 1: The Nature and Purposes of Physical Education

In the previous blog we explored Evans and Davies’s belief that class is still an important element in our schools and in the physical activity habits and opportunities of young people. The paper suggested that while class had been taken off the political agenda it was still very prevalent in society and was something that we need to be aware of in our practice. From our discussions it became obvious that access to sport was – in some ways – dictated by the financial cost of travel to take advantage of the best facilities and coach’s. Furthermore, it was about considering the child in front of us and not just the professional footballer, recreational cricketer that they may or may not become.

This paper is the first empirical study (i.e. it is the first to be based upon data collected by the researchers) in this major themes series. While the paper was originally published in 2002, and is based on data gathered in the UK, it has some important messages around the type of physical education that is offered in schools. It suggests that there is a significant difference between the offering made to boys and to girls in terms of team games and lifestyle activities on physical education curricula and extra-curricular timetables. However, what also emerges from this paper is a sense that the traditional games-focused programmes of physical education have endured despite evidence that these types of activities are not representative of the activities that men and women undertake as adults.

Paper 6:

Fairclough, S., Stratton, G., and Baldwin, G. (2013) In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education. (pp. 82-98) London: Routledge.


My ‘take home’ message – the implications of the research on practice


The key message to emerge out of this paper was that adult participation in physical activity most commonly occurs in activities that need only one or two people. For example, Badminton? Yet team games are most commonly played in schools and require specialist or large playing areas, match officials, more than one or two players per side, and often come with a requirement to attend training. There seems to be a large “disconnect” between the activities that dominant school provision and those that people take up and pursue through adult life. Should(n’t) we be doing something about this?

The dominant goal of physical education – as expressed by the practitioners who teach it – is the promotion of lifelong physical activity for the benefit of public health. Yet Fairclough, Stratton and Balwin (Fairclough and colleagues from now on) question whether PE programmes have the ability (even the potential) to influence our children (and the adults they become) to lead healthier lifestyles by being involved in regular physical activity participation. To promote lifelong physical activity participation there have been strong recommendations that PE programmes should focus on the promotion of lifetime physical activities at the expense of other ‘forms’ of physical education. For example, Zumba, Boxercise, Cycling and this list goes on….  Ridiculous I hear some of you say, how can we teach students activity that we expect them to participate in when they are 50 or even 70? I could hear parts of me (long buried parts I thought) voicing the same concerns. Yet the purpose of this paper is to consider the “relevance of current PE curricular and extra-curricular programmes to the goal of preparing students for participation in lifetime physical activity”. It does this by comparing current ‘trends’ in adult participation with the curriculum and extra-curricular offerings of participating schools with some ‘interesting’ and in some case ‘concerning’ conclusions.

Team games are offered as the mainstay of many curricular and extra-curricular programmes in PE. Fairclough and colleagues argued that if children could become attracted to lifetime activities as children they may be more likely to follow physically active lives when they reach adulthood. Indeed, other research has suggested that there is greater “carry over” into adult life from lifetime activities than from team games. This is especially poignant when you consider that, in the UK in 1987, nearly 100% of teachers used extra-curricular time to coach teams in areas that they had an expertise and/or in coaching talented performers. This study did report that lifetime activities were on the increase. However, they were still offered significantly less frequently than team games. Furthermore, while lifetime activities did appear more frequently in extra-curricular programmes – especially for 14-16 year old girls (as alternatives to team games) this was not replicated in curricular provision.

So what does your timetable look like? Mine was awash with team games and little if any opportunity was afforded to lifetime activities. The extra-curricular programme was as bad, if not worse. Why do we persist with games as the “operating centre” of PE? What would have to happen for significant changes to be made to what is offered? Is it needed? What would the consequence be?


The Paper

The paper draws on responses from boys’ and girls’ Heads of Physical Education (HoPE) in 89 secondary schools (160 respondents in total) in the northwest of England. Fairclough and colleagues found that in comparison to boys 35% of girls were more likely to be offered lifetime activities than boys. Furthermore, these lifetime activities were more frequently provided during extra-curricular programmes rather than in timetabled lessons. In contrast Male HoPE offered nearly twice the number of lifetime activities in their extra-curricular programmes than in their timetabled provision. However, team games still dominated the timetabled curriculum for both boys and girls in the 11-14 and 14-16 age ranges. Yet, Fairclough and colleagues did argue that these choices don’t come down solely to teacher choice. “A school’s facilities, budget, geographical situation, staff expertise, time in service and departmental ethos can all have a strong influence on what is included in the timetable”.

Unexpectedly, there was a rise in the number of team games offered to girls in the 14-16 age range. The authors had expected there to be a decline (in keeping with findings around girls’ disengagement with physical education during this time period). Yet these games were not that of Netball or Lacrosse (traditional games for girls) but rather there was a reported increase in the amount of ‘boys’ games’ (rugby, cricket and football) appearing in the curricula for 14-16 year old girls. However, while girls now had the chance to play previously consider boys’ games there was no corresponding increase in boys’ participation in activities or games normally labelled as being ‘for girls’ (dance, trampolining and gymnastics).

The curriculum seems to predominantly remain biased towards games and, on the whole, reinforcing  girls’ and boys’ activities. Furthermore, female HoPE were more likely to offer health related exercise as a standalone offering on the timetable while men more frequently used a blended approach (i.e. it was included in a number of activities across the timetable). In concluding Fairclough and colleagues suggested that tradition, teacher expertise and media influences, rather than carry over into adult life, had the strongest impact on what was offered both on the timetable and in extra-curricular activities. Without a reconsideration of physical education programmes, the creation of opportunities for staff to improve their subject knowledge and an understanding of what adults do to remain physically active, the authors suggested that little would change.


What’s next?
As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think
about findings of the paper – do they resonate? Use the associated discussion board (same title) on PEPRN to ask question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.?
Act
on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is this your responsibility or just something else to be put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be.
Change
what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? Please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.

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On Thursday 07 February at 18:50 Anne McKay said
Team based games activity programmes are alive and well here in NZ as well. Perhaps it comes back to the discussion around who we are as physical educators. Many of us come with a background of our own experiences both as participants in team sports (and more often than not successful experiences) ourselves or having had the team based programmes in our own physical education. In many cases such programmes of work are developed by teachers based on their own experiences and interest. I wonder how this might change if we allowed students more input into programmes or even provide them with more choice within programmes. One of the assessment activities available for senior school assessment (Year 12 - the second to last year at school) asks students to investigate what young people want from physical activity and what contexts they would like to see offered in both their physical education programmes and in what is offered in the school sport programme. They are also asked to question what context is more valued in schools and society and why. Using this as a base they are then asked to compare what young people want and what is on offer in their own schools and to consider whether or not the programmes are relevant for young people of today. Reading the comment about the idea of boys sport and girls sport it would seem useful to have them also question this as part of what sports are valued. I wonder if they realise how entrenched ideas around this might be. The aim is for them to present (in whatever way they want to) their findings to their physical education department and sports coordinator - a task that could be quite daunting. The task also asks them to make recomendations as to what they (students) would like to see in programmes - both physical education and sport. At this stage I am not sure how many departments have chosen to have this much scrutiny and investigation from students but I do believe that there needs to be more collaboration so that programming is done with students and not too students, however it needs to be done after some questioning and challenging of some deeply entrenched ideas around sport. Perhaps the latest sporting scandal downunder regarding doping, match fixing and organised crime may well provide the impetus to question such ideas. Perhaps we still uncritically buy into the idea that being involved in team sports is good for young people. Being involved in my own childrens team sporting opportunities I am astounded at how much of the culture of team sport is not positive and struggle myself about when to speak up and when to keep quiet. And my last comment is to recomend a book Young People's voices in Pjysical Education and Youth Sport ed Mary O'Sullivan and Anne MacPhail which provides some interesting insights into young peoples thinking.
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On Sunday 10 February at 11:08 Brendan Jones said
This article has a number of aspect to it that clearly show the divide between "old" PE and "new" PE. Firstly the idea that team sports are the bread and butter of a PE program. I can understand why they work for faculties . Fore-mostly, they target large groups of kids (class sized groups) and they are relatively cheap to equip and run. The only trouble is that team games don't always show us what the kids have learned, or leave us with a flawed assessment routine ("lets give marks for participation" or do they successfully engage the whole class. Lifelong physical activity is a lot harder to do at school. Because it can be so individual, or because it involves activities that the school is not prepared for, or capable of running. "Not prepared for" includes a willingness to consider new ideas or approaches from staff. I learned this first hand when I signed up for the TES website, and joined the PE forums. Very quickly any deviation from the "norm" of activities or opportunities for students was quite literally slammed as "Faffing around" and worthless. If these people in the PE forums are representative of what "real" PE is about, then I become very fearful. When PE staff are so resistant to change, then the profession and subject area is at risk of becoming irrelevant. Lifelong Physical activity is necessarily individual, tailored to the needs and setting of the participant. That team sports fit in the picture there is no doubt - but they should be part of a total offering of a PE program at school - not the only offering. Most kids have a gym membership, go for solo runs or walk with friends. Team sports may teach about teamwork - they also may serve to divide and isolate. Why not offer gym circuits, running and walking groups as part of a modern PE program? "What about the marks" I hear people nervously ask? Maybe it's time to change your assessment too - look at how apps get users to strive for better results. Setting PBs, awarding badges and unlocking new features or activities work for Strava, Foresquare and Zombies, Run. Why couldn't they work in class? JOnesy :-)
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On Sunday 10 February at 12:56 Stuart Fairclough said
Thanks to Ashley for such an accurate interpretation of this paper, which was based on some simple survey research we conducted over 10 years ago. The theme of how well PE prepares young people for physical activity participation beyond the school environment and indeed beyond their school years has been explored many times in the past. I think some of the comments from the other posters above touch on some of the issues which serve to constrain the PE curriculum from really diversifying and embracing the notion of a broad curriculum that is relevant to non-curricular/school participation. PE teacher backgrounds and life histories, limitations relating to budgets, equipment, facilities, knowledge and understanding, PE dept/school ethos, etc all combine to determine how the curriculum [and extra-curricular programmes] look. I've been heartened in the last few years by examples of more diverse and relevant curricular but the feeling is that schools and depts that do this may still be swimming against the tide. The cutting of SSP funding and Mr Gove's 'vision' of the school curriculum of the 21st century leave me feeling less than positive about whether PE will be able to seriously offer a balanced programme where lifetime activities are considered as relevant and purposeful as team sports. Still, I'd rather be optimistic and celebrate the great practice that certainly does exist rather than eternally pessimistic. Maybe it's time to replicate the research and see where we are at now...
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On Sunday 10 February at 19:18 Ken Dyar said
As Brendan Jones pointed out, this paper clearly illuminates the Old PE vs. New PE dilemma. I'm not familiar with PE requirements in other parts of the world...even here in the US, states differ widely on what they require. But here in California, all children must have PE for 200 min, every 10 days (grades 1-6), and 400 minutes every 10 days (grades 7-12). However, this requirement is rarely enforced. In the era of No Child Left Behind, PE has become marginalized because our tests are not figured into school and district performance scores. I work in the small town of Delano. For those of you wondering where that is, we are in the heart of the Central Valley, surrounded by agriculture. Our little town's claim to fame is that Cesar Chavez began the United Farm Workers movement here. I'm sharing this because we are a poor town. Many of our families live below the poverty line. Yet we have been able to promote and actually expand our PE programs....despite budget cuts and despite NCLB. Why? Because I sold the importance of the New PE like a madman! I presented to board members, community organizations, other school districts around the state, and even across the country. I was named a California State Teacher of the Year in 2006, and used that title to get people to listen to the message. I volunteered for research groups, sat on different PE-related boards and panels, and got the word out to anyone who would listen. The end result....New PE is thriving in this poor little town. The focus across our district is lifetime physical activity with a fitness focus. We still do team sports, but they are non-traditional: Team Handball, Ultimate Frisbee, Zone Football to name a few. However, we mix in many lifetime sports as well: Golf, racket sports, running, aerobics, dance. Each of our middle schools has its own fitness room with weight machines, exergaming, heart rate monitors and sound systems. Kids track their fitness progress, assessment is individualized, and the learning is relevant. How did we accomplish this? Because the people in my district who control the money and the curriculum believed in the message. I tied student fitness and health to academic achievement using the available research, and shared with my colleagues the benefits of movement in the school setting. I developed a team of supporters. and then the message became self-sustaining. If it can be done in Delano, it can be done anywhere. So why do so many programs still struggle to survive? Because the ROB (ROll Out the Balls) and BOB (Bag Of Balls) teachers are killing us! Any physical educator who has not made advocacy a priority is doing all of us a disservice. Old PE mentalities will continue to hinder our progress if no one is pushing to change people's perspectives. Granted, this is a huge task, and it takes a long time. However, when we as a physical education community fail to make the effort to push for programs that are structured in the best interest of children, we are not serving our kids, and we are not serving our profession. In California, we get all the kids: gifted, special ed, able-bodied, challenged, English speakers, second language learners. In my department, we have a saying, "Athletics are for Athletes, but PE is for everybody." So we better design a program appropriate for all children, because they all come through our door. Children have bodies as well as brains, and we better learn to nurture both if we are to provide them with opportunities to live their best lives. Thanks for running this forum Ashley. These discussions are fantastically enlightening. Ken
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On Sunday 10 February at 19:33 Dylan Blain said
Traditional team sports remain a part of curricular and extra curricular PE programmes and culturally are popular activities amongst many students. This, at least, is my experience from my region where large proportions of students continually opt for Rugby or Football if given choices. These are, after all, the games lots of them talk about, watch on the weekends and play at lunchtimes. I do therefore feel we should tap into this enthusiasm within our curriculums, however they must be made as inclusive as possible through careful lesson designs. I advocate the teaching of these games through models such as teaching games for understanding, sport education or the use of games making. This allows students to develop wider skills, in addition to physical skills, whilst also being much more inclusive to all. Formalising the implementation of these models effectively into my teaching is my current aim! This is however only one part of the curriculum and as Stuart explains we should try and diversify the options we provide our students. I am a firm believer in providing lifelong physical activities for all and this is one reason why we are motivated to providing positive health, fitness and well-being experiences for all. Providing students with opportunities to learn about why exercise is important, and how to do so effectively in an enjoyable way is paramount. With exercise activities, student progression is limited only by their motivation and subsequent effort and everyone can experience improvement and feelings of development. I have come to similar conclusions as Jonesy, in that we must use the aspects of console games that students find so motivating on their devices within our subject to enthuse them into PE. Providing points, unlockable badges etc. to encourage and reward students can, in my opinion, play an important role in the future of PE. Devising an inclusive curriculum for all, which encourages lifelong participation in physical activity should be central to a PE departments plans. However with budget and time constraints it is a difficult task that we must be innovative and enthusiastic about.
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On Sunday 10 February at 20:25 richard jones said
Rough estimates of the number of boys who will leave my school this year and go on to play team sports despite having lessons in them since y7: Rugby 12/135 Football 15/135 Basketball 0/135 Athletics team 3/135 Tennis teams 1/135 Cricket team 3/135 Gymnastics 0/135 The vast majority of students will seek a balanced active healthy lifestyle via 5 a side football, joining a local gym, cycling, jogging. So, what should the PE curriculum look like? Definitely time for a revolution. I'm not suggesting getting rid of 'old'. Instead it should be taught via extra curricula to those interested and motivated. Thoughts?
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On Sunday 10 February at 22:25 Anne McKay said
Richard Tinning once challenged my thinking when hes asked if we try and do too much in physical education. We seem to have a culture where we develop year long programmes where the contexts tend to be repeated each year albeit with a step up/scaffolded expectation of learning. I wonder if we thought of programmes in 2, 3 or even 4 year cycles cuuricula may look different or if we didn't have such a divide line between curricula and extra/co curricula and considered ideas around blended learning between what occurs in schools and out of school, or if we really looked at the messages our schools give about what physical activity is valued and considered important. Perhaps we need to ask a simple question - What is important and worth spending time on given where my students are at?
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On Sunday 10 February at 23:47 Nalda.wainwright said
Thanks Ashley and all who have posted comments, tomorrow's yr 2 BA PE lecture on the role of schools in promoting physical activity will have some more points for discussion!!! I think Ann's comments about listening to the voice of the pupils is very interesting. I feel optimistic that due to well established school councils, pupils will feel it is very normal to express their views and that these views will be valued. Certainly in Wales the new curriculum is developing independent articulate learners who run and chair class councils from the age of 5. These young people in the future will certainly have the confidence and skills to express what they think would be better in their school physical education. Let us hope the teachers are confident enough to listen!
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On Monday 11 February at 06:37 Liz Halina said
At theAmerican Embassy School in New Delhi, India, the High School Phys Ed faculty have designed their entire Comprehensive Physical Education programming around non-traditional sports and life-long physical activity pursuits. Activities incorporated include: yoga (a certified yoga teacher is hired externally and the PE teachers participate with the students), wall climbing, badminton, frisbee golf and ultimate, swimming, "backyard" games such as horseshoes, bowling, and floor hockey (which few students on the international school circuit have played before) among others. The Middle School offers similar programming including gymnastics and dance with a focus on collaboration and creative performances by small groups with foundations in movement/balance skills and fitness. When traditional team sports are taught, the focus tends to be on strategic decision making, communication skills, teamwork and inclusion rather than shooting and passing. Shifting from traditional sports (basketball, volleyball, soccer) to non-traditional activities is a great way to introduce students to activities they will likely participate in as they become adults. I commend the educators at this school for such forward thinking and programming for their students. Why do we choose the activities we do? Tradition? Because it's always been done? Or do we chose based on specific standards and goals for our students? What are our goals for our students as Physical Educators? I want healthy, happy, active students who can work together and treat each other with respect. I want students who can demonstrate those qualities while working within the context of my classroom (and the school's standards) and the larger world. How do I select activities and learning experiences for my students to achieve that while working under the guidance of my curriculum? How do I get my department on board if it is teaching using traditional activities and experiences? How do we initiate, facilitate and lead change? Here's to forward thinking, finding new best practices, and to healthy, happy, physically active students!
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On Wednesday 13 February at 18:23 Jo Bailey said
I watched this debate post-Olympics with great interest, mainly because I couldn't believe how much the media and government were talking about the legacy of the games and tying it almost exclusively (in my opinion) to team games and the expansion of team games In PE. While building ton the Olympic games legacy is hugely important and should be capitalized upon, I feel they completely missed the point of physical education. My belief is that PE should educate our students in how to look after their bodies, to understand the physiology behind it, the benefits of it, how to train our bodies and use a wide variety of activities as the medium to do this. I was in the first cohort of students at my school to take GCSE PE - I can say I learnt more during this class about the HOW and WHY of physical activity than in any other PE class. Everyone should know these basic concepts - we only have one body and yet so many people clearly do not know how to take care of themselves. I loved team games and still do (rugby any day!) but each year we were constantly teaching to a seasonal sport, as others have said, building from one year to the next but essentially teaching similar content. I would have loved to know how to properly weight train, do individual activities, understand nutrition because those are the things that are most important to me now. I have taught in the UK and in Hong Kong, both of which were UK curriculum driven, and ow teach in the US. I moved here at a time when we completely changed our PE curriculum from old school to new school - Like Ken said we still do team sports but in small sided groups, with a wide variety of options and the focus being on teamwork, cooperation etc instead. We offer leisure and lifetime (XC skiing, snowshoeing - perfect for Wisconsin), lifeguarding, Cardio Fit (heart rate monitors used a ton here), fitness for life, strength and conditioning, dance and fitness, adventure education, personal defence, and net racket games. We have written grants to secure funding and, like Ken, have advocated hugely for our program. Last week I had my state senator come in to teach him exactly what high quality PE should be. I also completely agree with Ken that the ROB/BOB teachers are killing us - we have to educate our legislators, school boards, colleagues, and parents constantly about the importance of PE. I think the national curriculum really needs to be updated and brought into the 21st century - and the government educated a little more... David Cameron's comments on Indian dancing anyone??!!

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