The previous blog asked if we are caught, like a rabbit, in the headlights of indecision. In other words, do we already know that we should change our extra-curricular provision to serve the needs of all pupils but feel the pull towards the aspects of physical education that attracted us to the subject in the first place? The blog concluded by asking us to at least begin to question the full value of an interscholastic programme that favours the few over the many. 

Ironically, this week’s blog explores the recent UK OfSTED (Office for Standards in Education) publication and its feelings on extra-curricular sport in school. It is important to note that I had, as always, intended to comment on Brown and Johnson’s paper but now find it a great foil to the ‘findings’ that were reported today. The blog argues that we need to compare apples with apples in research and acknowledge the work done by others that has allowed us to get to where we are. In other words we should acknowledge that we are Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes or, in English, dwarfs standing on the shoulders of Giants”.


Volume 4: The curriculum and the subject matter of physical education


Paper 73: 

Brown, D. & Johnson, A. (2000/2012). The social practice of self-defense martial arts: Applications for physical education In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume IV. (pp. 49-65) London: Routledge.



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

Dwarfs standing on the shoulder of giants. 

This expression is attributed to John of Sainsbury in the 12th Century but having been made famous by Sir Isaac Newton it now stands as the motto of Google Scholar and is inscribed on the edge of UK’s two pound coin. Its original intention was to suggest that we don’t see more or further than our predecessors because of our great intellect, awe inspiring insights and better vision. Indeed, we are able to stand on our predecessors’ shoulders and add our small stature to their great height.

This idea is very much a part of what I do. For example, when peer-reviewing for journal articles my role is to ensure that new knowledge and understanding builds on old knowledge and doesn’t claim what it can’t. I am there to help the writer(s) see a little more of the bigger picture. It could be said that I stand on the shoulders of others and try and help the writer(s) see a fraction further.

It frustrated me when I read a public report from OfSTED (see below) that appears, on first reading, to fundamentally ignore this premise. It saddened me to read an executive summary (the limit to which most people will get in the report I strongly suspect) that doesn’t take any account of the huge and growing body of research in physical education and which makes claims that most undergraduate students in the field could probably disparage and refute. Finally it worries me that the apparent bastions (and determiners) of ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ teaching and learning in UK education are willing to make such indefensible statements.

The report - “Going the extra mile – excellence in competitive school sport” – sets out to explore the “high proportion of English competitors who have been educated in independent schools.” In this piece of commissioned and external research OfSTED sought to see if there was a link between the quality of competitive school sport and later sporting success. You might argue that this is a laudable study but the manner in which it was undertaken seems suspect and its decision to ignore previous research speaks of a willingness to see further by artificially lifting themselves higher rather than standing on shoulders.

They visited “10 independent schools with a strong track record of sporting excellence” and 35 maintained schools and academies – a sample which contained “some…schools [which] matched the success seen in some of the best schools in the independent sector.” To me that’s clearly a case of comparing apples with pears. What about the independent schools that don’t have the same track record? To make conclusion like these shouldn’t we compare like with like? Apples with apples?

When comparing engagement, again, apples with pears. The report suggests that sport in the independent schools visited was compulsory. This led to full participation while under a voluntary state system less than half of the 1000 students question regularly played sport in school. Why weren’t students questioned in the independent school? Why weren’t questions about out of school engagement discussed or former students questioned to see what their engagement was and is?

The report also makes direct links between a flourishing competitive sports programme and being judged good and outstanding, by OfSTED, for overall effectiveness. While I would like to be able to make the claim that outstanding sport leads to outstanding schools these links are coincidental and take no account of the many other contributing factors to a good or outstanding judgement.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to go into further detail on these issues and I invite you to read the report and make your own judgements. What I am convinced of, however, is that this report stands alone. It is sensational and doesn’t take into account decades of research that would refute or at least challenge many of these claims. This week’s paper is a case in point. It argues for a martial arts curriculum that values, among other things, an ‘ego-less” philosophy and a “losing-as-winning” mentality that would better educate our young people. I am sure these are not politically rich ideas, and you might disagree with them when you read them, but at least they build on prior research and the ideas of the giants that came before them.


The Paper

Brown and Johnson begin by talking about the transformative potential of martial art practices “for adopting and integrating alternative philosophical outlooks toward life and physical activity”. Reading OfSTED’s commissioned research you might wonder why you would want to change the established philosophy but research tells us that while traditional school sport disempowers many students martial arts practice can constitute forms of ‘self-help’, ‘self-actualization’, increased ‘self-esteem’, and a greater sense of ‘self-control’. Indeed the authors describe it as an emancipatory (or liberating) practice.

Drawing focus from the sociology of the body research in the field of physical education Brown and Johnson adopt a perspective of “martial arts as an embodied practice”. To better understand this position it is important to realise that embodiment is seen as “a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling.” In other words, ideas such as “sport is good” are represented in the way that sport is practiced and, in the case of physical education, positioned and taught.

Brown and Johnson argue that embodied dispositions are an inherent part of sport in schools. They hold, through the research that proceeded their work, that sport for upper class pupils (those who might well attended one of the ten schools visited by OfSTED) uses “specific sporting practices to develop key dispositions toward upper class masculinity and leadership qualities in preparation for a life of social dominance”. In comparison physical education experiences in ‘working class’ schools has reflected a need for pupils to ‘follow orders’ and get on with things. Furthermore Brown and Johnson argue that these practices have been responsible for the alienation of “students of physical education and sport for their bodies, regardless of whether they are good or bad performers.”

In contrast, the development of the “Way” in martial arts which “indicates that the practice to which it is applied is a pathway of self-cultivation that individuals follow through their martial arts education (and life).” Brown and Johnson argue, in a way that OfSTED don’t, that martial arts embody a “body-for-self” and “you-in-the-situation” mentality that allows individuals to deal with our inherently high stress and fast moving lives. They believe that physical education should help students to deal with wider society’s growing obsession with the body and the social construction of body image both through and for physical culture. In this way physical education “must contribute to and be an integral part of the development of the whole person, which is inseparably physical, intellectual, spiritual, individual, cultural and social”. 

Martial arts, through their need for holistic self-development, offer up a range of experiences that are “the antithesis of the ‘high arousal,’ ‘get psyched up,’ and ‘win at all costs’ philosophy that is so prevalent in the west”. Given the OfTSED report I would argue that this is also the antithesis of some of the practices that they are supporting. It is time that we had some new ways of thinking in politics and school leadership and that we acknowledged the implications of competition for all. We also need to stand on the shoulders of others and not sensationalise limited findings for political aims.

NB: I am certainly not anti elite sport (I am listening to the England vs. Sri Lanka test match as I write this) and nor am I anti independent school (I went to one and thrived in their sports programme) I am just hoping that one day soon policy and research can begin to work together to merge ideas and help learners and their learning in physical education.



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 for her work behind the scene as copy editor and Routledge (part of the Taylor and Francis group) for donating a copy of the Physical Education: Major themes in education series. Their respective help certainly forms a vital part of the production of this blog, and in getting out on time and in a semblance of coherence. However it is important to note that any mistakes that remain are mine.