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“Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”: Might multi-activity programmes be a good thing?

Volume 2: Learners and Learning in Physical Education

In the previous blog we explored Flintoff and Scraton’s (2001) work exploring girls’ experiences of PE. The paper argued that we need to look beyond the ‘traditional’ views that girls dislike PE, and understand the different forms of learning that girls want to engage with; often outside of school with friends or family. This is especially prevalent if we are to adequately provide meaningful and worthwhile experiences for those who are under our care.

In this week’s blog we explore the notion that more is better and that multi-activity programmes may have contributed to an increase in young people’s participation rates over the last 40 years. Drawing on data from England and Wales the paper suggests that an increased repertoire of sporting experiences as a young person serves as a means of protection from physical activity ‘dropout’ and buffers against the increasing specialism in activity that occurs in adulthood.


Paper 32:

Green, K., Smith, A. and Roberts, K. (2005/2012). Young people and lifelong participation in sport and physical activity: a sociological perspective on contemporary physical education programmes in England and Wales. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume II. (pp. 132-152) London: Routledge.


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

One thing that has emerged from this blog over the last eight months has been a feeling that, in too many lessons, PE is not living up to its potential. One of the key components of this sense of underachievement has been the multi-activity, traditional, gendered games-focused curriculum. Kids, it would appear, just don’t want to do the same sports year-on-year and nor do they want ability to be the prime means through which they are accessed. Indeed, this is the PE that is frequently criticised in the media, by the inspectors, by academics and by the enlightened practitioners I frequently engage with at conferences and on twitter.

However, this paper suggests that the multi-activity programme may not be quite the villain that many have labelled it. The authors argue that the rise and development of the multi-activity programme has coincided with a period of growth in the leisure and physical activity habits of young people. Indeed, one of the key findings suggests that the multi-activity curriculum has allowed young people to become capable in many sports – which in turn has future-proofed them against disengagement in physical activity.

I must admit to some scepticism over these results and wonder at a number of convenient coincidences in the paper. However, I am also aware that this paper challenges my ideas around what has happened in PE and that may just be uncomfortable. It is certainly something that needs to be reflected on.

To me the key notion that the authors allude to is the change (over the last 40 years) in the whole idea of youth. The new idea of youth (and I include myself in this demographic as I enjoyed the earliest years of this re-definining of youth) has emerged as school and employment has changed. In the 70s few people went on to study beyond the age of 16 and fewer still went to university. Therefore, youth more or less ended at 16 with young people joining the workforce. In the intervening 40 years this pattern has markedly changed, and increasingly youth go on to study after the age of 16, with many of them going on to university. This elongation of time spent in education – coupled with the increasing numbers of 16-24 years olds who are not currently in work or full-time education – has expanded the time people can be classified as ‘youth’. It has also opened up greater amounts of leisure time which, when coupled with the expansion of the leisure industry since the 1970s, has provided greater opportunities for young people to be involved in leisure and physical activity.

What cannot be denied, though, is that engagement has risen. Nor can the assertion (which I endorse) that this increase is attributable to PE teachers around the world. However, the links are a little too tenuous for my liking. That said, how do I (or we) know? PE has been particularly bad at collecting evidence on its achievements and most of our successes are recorded through anecdotes, hunches and stories. In advocating for our programmes we need more than this, and maybe the messages in the paper gives us somewhere to start. That doesn’t mean we should be complacent but should instead put some evidence together to supplement and enhance our existing ‘hunches’.


The Paper 

Green and colleagues challenge a growing and well-argued body of literature that questions the ability of multi-activity programmes to provide quality physical education experiences for children and young people. Drawing on the belief that PE’s purpose is to promote lifelong participation in physical activity this paper suggest that, while PE is not capable of serving kids for life it is capable of enhancing young people’s predispositions to lifelong participation. However, it does acknowledge that the type of programme most likely to achieve this outcome is still a highly contested area. That said, the authors argued that the ability of the multi-activity programme to provide a meaningful foundation for lifelong participation has been dismissed too quickly.

The biggest charge that has been made against multi-activity programmes is that they provide a mismatched of experience for young people when compared to the participation tendencies of adults. However, the authors argue that the claims made against these programmes are unjustified and that “developments in PE curricula in England and Wales in recent decades can be viewed more optimistically if and when they are considered alongside trends in participation among young people as well as their leisure lifestyles in general”.

Firstly, the paper reports on a gradual broadening of secondary PE curricula since the mid-1960s. This has included degrees of activity choice alongside a degree of continuity (in terms of the dominance of sport and team games). However, this dominance has been maintained through a greater breadth of sports (such as badminton, basketball, tennis, dance, aerobics and health-related fitness) – a pointed supported by OFSTED. This range of activities, the authors argued, has continued to broaden over the last two decades. Simultaneously, these activities have been shown by Sport England to track into early adulthood – a fact that in itself suggest that these curricula haven’t been as poor as many have suggested.

That said, these changes have occured during a period of sustained change in leisure time and participation. The authors report on a ‘marked decline’ in the drop-out rate in sport and physical activity participation during adolescence. This engagement (or lack of disengagement) is often occurring within health and fitness environments, with “a small minority playing competitive sports”.

But why?

Green and colleagues suggest that multi-activity programmes have provided young people with opportunities to be involved in a large range of activities before they leave school. This exposure to a ‘wide sporting repertoire’, in turn, has protected them from the inevitable ‘drop-out’ that occurs through life. Drawing on prior research, the authors suggest that “whatever the reasons for dropping out of a particular sports, where the individuals played several games, their entire sports careers were less vulnerable”.

It is this vulnerability that appears to be the key to the reported success of multi-activity programmes and have helped to provide young people with the opportunity to become involved in “informal, casual, recreational activities”.  Leisure (which includes sport) has become a site for young people to establish and assert their independence, and their exposure and introduction to different activities at school may facilitate this.

Concluding their paper, the authors suggested that sport-based PE programmes should not be considered to be “devoid of merit in terms of facilitating lifelong participation”.  Increased levels of participation are said to be, in no small measure, due to the “wide sporting and physical activity repertories that young people have developed”. Indeed, the authors conclude that choice is important in this development and that young people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the “over representative of a small number of sports in schools”. So the take home message from this paper seems clear – young people wish (and perhaps need) to experience a “wider choice of activities” but these don’t need to be focused on the traditional games curriculum. A breadth of experience is important, as it might future-proof against adult drop-out, but range and real choice is also important. Indeed, the over emphasis on traditional gendered team games is something that needs to be reconsidered.


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 comment box below 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.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear whose work behind the scene as copy editor is a vital part of getting this blog out on time and in a semblance of coherence. 

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On Saturday 24 August at 17:56 Mark Newman said
I arrived at the "c" stage a few years ago introducing multi activities throughout the curriculum at high school. International games unit was included in this. To encourage my students to be lifelong movers this is crucial. Implementing a unit of work with the significant concept of "what will make me participate in sport or activities later in life" enable the students to investigate. Is it competition, striking games, social etc that could enforce their constant participation. Thanks for posting, always good to continue questioning the PE content.
Andy Vasily
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On Tuesday 27 August at 03:17 Andy Vasily said
I am in total agreement that students must experience a 'wider choice of activities' and that being exposed to only the traditional sports is something that becomes mundane over time, especially when repeated on a yearly basis in their PE programs. However, having said this, simply exposing them to a multitude of activities and giving them free reign is not the answer either in my opinion. Within our teaching practice we must provide them with opportunities to explore different sports, but to do so with a meaningful purpose. The TGFU model is an excellent approach in allowing students to build upon skills in a progression of different layers ultimately leading up to being able to participate in un-modified games. But to me the critical element here is to get students to understand the important connections across different sports. Developing their competence requires us to allow them opportunities to be cognitively engaged in figuring out what these important connections are and by doing so we are providing them with the skills necessary to drop in an play any of these games/sports. 'Connection' is a powerful concept and developing students understanding of connection allows them to decipher what actual skills are necessary for them to develop should they be able to participate in a broader range of activities as they progress through life. Let's look at tennis, golf, squash, baseball, cricket, table tennis etc. All of these sports are dependent upon being able to make contact with a ball. Of course the techniques are all different (as well as rules and strategies), but to me the big concept is the ability to coordinate the movement of the hands and eyes. By exposing students to as many opportunities as possible to develop hand and eye coordination over time, we are arming them to be able to better participate in activities such as this. They will feel more competent. Now, when they are also able to make connections between rules and strategies as well, they will become even more competent and hopefully show even more willingness to take a risk and try out new activities. Physical literacy is important, I totally get this, but equally as important is the ability to make connections.
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On Wednesday 28 August at 23:03 Anne McKay said
"A breadth of experience is important, as it might future-proof against adult drop-out, but range and real choice is also important. Indeed, the over emphasis on traditional gendered team games is something that needs to be reconsidered" I dont think I can argue against this last statement. I like the notion of a breadth of experience and I like the challenge on the over emphasis of traditional gendered team games, Perhaps it is not so much about the breadth of contexts but how we come to decide on what contexts and what we do with them. If we focus on "teaching the context" then I can see how we could argue against a plethora of context as students don't have enough time to develop their learning as they move from context to context that at best develops some surface level learning and at worst has student disliking the context as the "cant do it". Maybe if we look at a focus on an aspect of learning, a theme, a big idea, a question and then use the range of contexts as just that - contexts for learning,allowing students to have more time to develop their learning, be able to consider similarities and differences between contexts, to understand transference of understanding and knowledge. As Andy concludes with - the importance of connections.What we move from is "teaching the sport" to teaching for learning and teaching the student. Along with this idea of a range of contexts - having the students involved in deciding on what contexts and why provides another consideration for learning and has the possibility of pushing students beyond the traditional idea of sport and games alone. I attended Student led conferences last night with my daughters. In English and Maths - I learnt about what they had learnt, where their gaps were and what they needed to work on for their next step learning. In Physical Education - I was told what they had "done" Gymnastics and Large ball skills. I still have no idea what they "did" within those contexts let alone what they learnt. I left with big bite marks in my tongue!

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