• A
  • A
Switch colours to view the site as you prefer!

Are we still on the outside looking in?

The previous blog asked if the similarities of practice in PE are such that it is beyond the capacity of individuals to make a difference to anyone outside of their own classrooms? It suggested that practice in PE is a global entity and while there might be pockets of resistance around the world, the core principles of PE have remained unchallenged for decades. It concluded by asking what we can do, as a body of physical educators, to make changes for the global good.

This week’s blog looks back on a paper written nearly 40 years ago and asks, worryingly, if PE still stands on the end of school life and if it still needs to justify itself through elite sporting success. Fundamentally, however, it also asks why, given the changes that have occurred in the world, PE (a) is still positioned as the prestige gathering arm of the school, and (b) shows understanding of the skilful child but doesn’t know how to help those who are disaffected or low skilled? 


Volume 3: Teachers, teaching and teacher education in physical education

Paper 57:

Hendry, L.B.  (1975/2012) Survival in a marginal role: The professional identify of the physical education teacher. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume III. (pp. 222-233) London: Routledge.


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

A few weeks ago I had the chance to work with a fantastic group of teacher educators, teachers and pre-service teachers at the London Association for Physical Education’s (afPE) one-day conference. The theme for the day was focused on ascertaining if PE had lost its Mojo and the day culminated with a panel session where this issues was discussed. One of the questions to emerge from the audience revolved around the traditional role of the PE teacher in running school fixtures and producing the future international athletes of the future. We were talking about the perceived need to ‘fill the trophy cabinet’ and lay claim to the development of any elite performer who had once walked through the door to our gymnasium and partook of our programme. We talked about international shirts hanging in corridors and alumni being paraded through the annuals of the school to represent the excellence of the PE programme. We talked about ‘people we knew or had heard about’ who built their careers and programmes around these types of successes and then we questioned the bona fide nature of these claims and where/how they might have emerged and been accepted as credible.

My response was that the tradition and expectation that the PE teacher was a ‘coach’ emerged from the marginalised position of the PE teacher in the school. He or she, as recently ago as the early 1970s – in the UK at least – was not required to hold a degree and could teach with a certificate in education (a cert ed). This led to diminished status among colleagues and the PE teacher (like the wood work, music, art or domestic science teacher) was seen as a ‘trainer-instructor’ rather than an academic member of staff. Since PE wasn’t an exam subject the only way for the low status PE teacher to gain recognition was through the success of the school in local, regional and national competitions. This was the way that PE and its teachers gained prestige. 

Despite the rise in many countries of the availability of examination PE and the shift towards healthy lifestyles the role of coach is still one of prestige. The success of the school team(s) is vital and the number of elite graduates from programmes is still seen as a reflection on the quality of the programme and the teacher. In some countries ‘coach’ even comes with a pay rise and greater responsibility and respect. Yet despite this many of the people I talk to on twitter and at conferences still find themselves advocating for their subject. Money goes to the ‘coach’ and to the ‘football team’ (among other teams) but the rest of the programme suffers. In carving out this position of recognition and prestige in the school have we inadvertently shot ourselves in the foot?

So what can we do? How can we show that out  goals, our money and our prestige shouldn’t be focused just on the elite but should be about how we help each and every child live a healthy and happy life – a life that we might just (in a small way) have helped them get closer to this.


The Paper

Writing nearly forty years ago Hendry suggests that schools are places where some people get respect for who they are (head or principal), for what they teach (maths or foreign languages), for the example they set (the disciplinarian), and for the positive publicity they garner (the PE teacher). People, he says can get credit for combining roles but for some, i.e. those with low status jobs in poorly perceived subject areas, these options are limited.

Hendry believed that the PE teacher, due to the low academic standing of the subject, gets by on getting good publicity and for keeping the naughty kids in check. Indeed, he suggests that “the public image of the physical education teacher is of ‘a man (sic) of action…not first choice for a discussion of professional problems”.

This ‘non-too-bright individual’, Hendry held, was recognisable by his or her dress (which was different to any other member of staff), by their ‘non-serious’ role, their perceived marginality and feelings of low prestige. Significantly senior leaders in schools and academic colleagues saw PE (and its teachers) as a useful instrument of persuasion or coercion and its commitment to school goals and values. Pupils saw this a little more in black and white. They saw the PE teacher as holding a disciplinary role and “concentrating on the very able and skilled pupils, while lacking some understanding of those less interested in the subject”.

What worries me more than anything, I suppose, is that this paper was written in 1975.

1975 was the year that the Altair 8800 (a microcomputer) was released and the Volkswagen Golf was introduced. It was the year of Super bowl IX in which the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings and the year in which Wheel of Fortune premiered. This was the year that space mountain opened and the Watergate scandal came to a close. This was the year that Charlie Chaplin was knighted and Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft. This is the year that the Helsinki Accords were signed, NASA launched Viking 1, and the Apache helicopter made its first flight. This was the year that the “Yorkshire ripper” committed his first murder, the G6 was formed and the heavy metal band, Iron Maiden, was formed.

So much has happened since then and yet PE doesn’t seem to have changed that much. It continues to be seen as a marginalised subject, good on discipline but bad on intelligence. It is still accused of focusing on the elite while having little understanding or drive to help the less able and the disaffected. When is enough, enough? The Altair 8800 is almost unrecognisable when compared to modern computers and yet the PE teacher seems like a familiar figure. 


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

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve 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? If you want to do something or are looking for help then 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.


comment avatar
About me
On Friday 28 February at 23:15 Helen Ives said
Ash, good blog and certainly one that got me thinking. Especially as I consider myself as an intruder within the PE profession even though I have several years experience of working on the inside and trying to bring about change. So I'll share some of my experiences and thoughts, they may not be substantiated by research but reading back through some of my reflections for my own work - I can recognise my frustration when it comes to bringing about change. My first experience of going through a major (professional) change was back in 2004 - redundancies, being put on the list, needing to think about a plan B but then also being advised to read 'Who Moved the Cheese' by Spencer Johnson. We are introduced to 4 mice, Hem and Haw, Sniff and Scurry. The cheese is a metaphor for life and needless to say I would recommend what i consider to be a 'short story' to anyone about to have to deal with change. After all we are now in a change culture and it is becoming accepted that things are not as they were. Thus, the question is why has Phys Ed remained so resistant to change? Is it that the fear of what change may bring that prevents some from just heading down a new corridor to discover new things for fear of losing the old?. Is it that through the positioning of PE departments within schools that they become their own ecosystem? With the sportshalls and gyms often harbouring PE departments away from the staff rooms and corridors where colleagues from all other subjects can be only feet away from each other. Enabling them to circulate across and within departments whilst the Phys Ed teacher is running a lunch club, after school club, getting kit out or putting kit away and that, for them, getting to relax in the staff room over lunch is often a utopian idea. Long term change, I consider, comes from within and being able to convey your ideas to others to create strength through cohesion often in an idea. The decade of investment in PESS and the School Sport Partnerships provided an opportunity for change - but only a small amount of innovative practice occurred, and less so sustained. With money, policy and an infrastructure to support change all available, change i would argue particularly in secondary schools, was minimal. Was it because the secondary phys ed teacher was seen as specialist, was it that the new PESS strategies were viewed as a threat and because they were externally run to PE departments thus treated with scepticism rather than embraced? Each and every teacher I worked with had different views, most wanted to bring about change in their subject or so they said, but actions speak louder than words. Physical Education requires a strong voice for the profession to stand behind and believe. Yet CPD, particularly in leadership, is often overlooked. Knowing how to position your argument when up against league tabled 'academic' subjects. Knowing how physical education can underpin learning - after all it was the Specialist Sports Colleges that witnessed the highest improvement rates in academic achievement. Yet there seems to be something that physical education seems to want to protect, or is it that PE staff are too busy with trying to fill the trophy cabinet their sacrifice their own personal development in order to comply with a subliminal form of performance management. We say that physical education needs to change, but does it. If something is resistant to change could we not just accept what physical education is? There are many that suggest there are various futures for phys ed, Kirk (2010) for example. WHY not accept that phys ed is marginalised, but what is needed is protection to make sure it doesn't become extinct. Is the evolution of physical education necessary? Some creatures have continued to survive with minimal evolutionary advancements, maybe physical education is the crocodile or shark of the education world? If we were to consider this, would we be more productive in repositioning a future for physical education if we were accepting that the future was 'more of the same' which did not result in 'extinction' (Kirk, 2010) rather than distracted by a need to change?
comment avatar
About me
On Saturday 01 March at 14:17 Alan Thomson said
Surely change can only be initiated if those initiating change have a knowledge of where things are at present and understand what they want to change to. How much of the profession are even aware of the current state of PE, let alone have any idea of what to change to, and how that change will take place? How many PE teachers reflect beyond their current roles (and the influence of Ofsted's criteria for 'Outstanding) to take into account the bigger philosophical picture? From speaking to many (my wife included), the day to day realities of the role do not allow time for reflection/reflexion, and by changing their ways of doing things without knowing what to change to or even how to change does not seem (for them) a realistic prospect. Interestingly the many teachers I speak to are working in departments that are graded by SLT and by Ofsted as being 'Outstanding' and therefore these teachers believe that they do an excellent job as the quality assurers and controllers are feeding back to them that they are doing a great job (End of KS3 levels and GCSE/A Level grades also reinforce this belief). Having spent a good deal of time conducting an ethnographic study of an 'Outstanding' PE department, it was interesting to observe that although there were both 'traditional' and 'holistic' teachers in the department with contested and conflicting constructions of effective PE teaching, their praxis were actually remarkably similar. Despite often conflicting accounts of their beliefs about the nature of PE, their teaching actions and the structure of the lessons remained comparable, particularly when being observed for appraisal and whole school/departmental Ofsted initiatives. I think that SLT teams' understanding of physical education and their constructions of effectiveness aligned with the imagined constraints of teaching to meet Ofsted 'Outstanding' criteria should also be addressed.
comment avatar
About me
On Friday 07 March at 01:00 Mel Hamada said
Ash, I have to shake my head at the fact that the article you are kind enough to share still reflects a lot of what we see in PE today. I am currently away with the HS boys soccer team as a coach. I have had an ongoing dialogue about the expectations of the PE dept in my school and most of our discussion centres around our role as coaches in the school, not as creators and educators of students in PE, and this really bothers me. We just had our MYP accreditation visit and had a great conversation about teaching and learning in our PE classes and it was really such a different discussion about the things that we do really well as a team. The visiting members asked us why our PE Dept minutes reflect so heavily the day-to-day items (equipment, fixtures, dates, facilities, trips, coaching) and not the curriculum discussions (PYP, MYP, scope and sequence, inquiry) and they had me shaking my head - as a new HoD in PE this is what I wanted, but what I have inherited is a messy system of mixed expectations. My school leaders would be the first ones to say that we as a PE dept do too much but we are also told that as we have a 'specific skillset' it is expected that we are coaches too. Why other teacher's won't coach is not just about skill sets but the time that it takes to coach and the conditions that we coach in (winter, snow, rain, etc). I believe schools must see PE and Coaching as two very separate things. We need to make sure that the PE office has a specific philosophy and that hopefully the Coaching philosophy of the school comes together with that educational focus. We are seeing great shifts in how PE should be taught, to allow for everyone to find success and to motivate life long learning, our coaching opportunities should also reflect this with a careful mix of drills and play. (let's not debate here). I would like to see the PE staff either have our coaching seasons as a 'class' so that we are not teaching a full load and then coaching on top of this, and that this is recognised by the school. I also think that if I am coaching hockey or soccer or basketball that this commitment is not belittled or that some coaches are above others or paid more, we are all educationalists, and should be encouraging and learning from each other. I am excited about building the Invasion Games program at our school - in PE and in our coaching seasons, and I think it is great to bring all coaches and teachers on board to share in the wealth of knowledge but agree where we are going and make sure our kids don't get completely mixed messages. Change has to happen for us to move forward and come out of the 'those who can't teach - teach gym' mentality, I am not just a coach or a PE teacher, I teach life, but happen to do it in the gym.

In order to add your comments, you must login or register as a member

You can login or register here