PE Revolution by @fulbridge_acad

‘Just because we have always done it that way, does not mean it is right.’

This is no more true than in the world of physical education. Watch a PE lesson and it looks the same as it did when you and I were at school. We need a quiet or even noisy revolution in PE and it needs to start in the home with the toddler and we need to rethink our approaches in school with our 3 and 4 year olds upwards.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by @fulbridge_acad and published with kind permission.

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I am a trained secondary PE teacher, now a primary head and I have never lost my love of PE, our school grounds with its wonderful adventure climbing areas, caving system and 3G all weather pitch are testament to that.

Physical Education must be active above all else. So congratulations to the guidance in the new Primary PE curriculum which highlights this as its main change, alongside getting the children into more competitive situations. This is not just to do with the obesity crisis, which is far more to with diet than lack of activity, it is to do with delivering an effective PE syllabus that will result in physically able children who play and achieve at sport more successfully.

Why in Reception classes are we doing formal PE lessons, something that is totally contrary to Early Years philosophy and pedagogy? We are getting children changed and taking them into a hall where they move very little and roll, throw, catch a ball, a hoop, a quoit or a bean bag. Or we walk them very carefully along a bench, upside down bench if we are feeling adventurous, often holding their hand and at the end of the lesson they get changed again, no sweat, no raised heart beat, little learning.

The equivalent to this often happens all the way to Year 6 and beyond – children standing one metre away from each other throwing and catching a ball. Why? – because we have always done it that way, we did that at school, so we will teach them that way today. We still see games of 11-a-side football, cricket and rounders, instead of small sided games with maximum participation. When I was at school we had one vaulting box and 30 children queued up waiting for their turn and we still see children queuing for their turn in PE nowadays as well.

What sport involves standing still, with no opposition and no variables? Do drills and skill practices transfer into a game and make the children more successful at the game? To some degree, not much evidence of a significant impact so why in school PE lessons do we spend so much time on them?

Our youngest children need to be running around , making choices about how to avoid other children and equipment. If they are carrying a ball with them or kicking a ball as they move that’s great, if someone is trying to get it off them even better, if they won’t let them, we’re starting to get there. If they have a friend who is helping them and they are trying to get the ball to them whilst young Shane is trying to intercept even better …… or should we stand them opposite each other a metre apart, stationary, whilst they throw and catch a ball, bean bag or quoit in a nice quiet hall with nobody distracting them?

Imagine a playground for 4 year olds with lots of opportunities to run, climb, bike and scoot, with other children getting in the way. Put some skipping ropes out there, a goal, a basketball hoop, some balls, a tennis racket, a cricket bat, a hockey stick and let’s see what happens. The children initiate the play, their choice and they are surrounded by activity, sports based opportunities. This environment needs to be available throughout the day.

In Year 1 we traditionally do more of the same type of formal PE lessons full of drills and practices, again this needs to change. To begin with, ideally, we need to have twenty minute daily lessons, not two PE lessons a week of 40 minutes plus.

In Years 1 and 2 they also need the same play opportunities as Reception do but at breaks and lunchtimes. In the daily PE sessions we need competitive active games, they may be competing against themselves or against someone else. They need to be playing dishes and domes, corners, tag and similar games they need to be running and learning to avoid other moving bodies and if they bump into each other, fall over or clash heads, great they are learning and are likely not to let it happen again, they are also learning skills that will transfer into sports successfully …… or should they stand still in a nice quiet hall, facing eachother, with no distractions, throwing and catching a ball – a metre apart?

As the new primary PE curriculum points out we need to focus on children’s agility, balance and coordination and this is best done through the running games I listed above.

The children also need to be masters of their own decision making. They should not always be prompted by the teacher or coach. However teaching and role modelling by a more able person is needed just as it is in reading, maths, writing and oracy. Our prime goal must be that the children develop their strength, flexibility, balance, movement, agility and coordination.

We must attempt to replicate game and competitive situations in our teaching, in our lessons and yet as so often has happened in the past we teach isolated skills that do not transfer into the game, which is what we ultimately want children to be successful at. In the classrooms we have the same issues to address with regards to transfer of skills with phonics and SPaG lessons and the age old ineffective strategy of learning lists of spellings and spelling tests. We need to integrate these skills into lessons to be effective and it is the same principle in PE.

The Primary PE Curriculum states that:

  • We need to develop, in the children, the competence to excel in a broad range of physical activities

  • Children must be active for sustained periods of time through the use of physically demanding activities

  • Children should, engage in competitive sports and activities against self and with and against others

  • They must participate in team games

  • We must teach children how to lead healthy active lives

We want children to choose to engage in physical activity just as we want them to choose to read and write. They need to develop general physical skills and a love of physical activity before specialising in sport specific skills like drills and practices and yet all too often we start and focus on the former. We want children to leave PE, excited, even argumentative, passionate about sport with a desire to win and compete.

The key skills we need to focus on in our planning are not things like throwing and catching but coordination, flexibility, speed, agility, balance, control, endurance, spatial awareness, strength, fluency harmony and precision.

If you want a child to improve at a particular technique, like passing a football or throwing and catching, doing this skill unopposed in a static sterile situation with stationary targets with no interference, movement and action has limited benefits. It may take longer to acquire the basic skill but if it is learnt in a competitive, dynamic situation then we are teaching the necessary open skills rather than closed ones. If it is taught in this way it will transfer to a competitive situation and be embedded and relevant.

If we add decision making, awareness of others and spacial awareness where you need to use your peripheral vision, a key ability/skill to have in any sport – Paul Scholes of Manchester United was amazing at this, then the children are truly learning to be better at Physical Education and Sport.

Practice at anything has to be a rehearsal for the real thing and any rehearsal needs, at its core, to be some sort of run through of the final event. We must create physically literate children who can move in random directions and at random speeds and heights. Early on in their lives children must learn to turn and twist, move forwards and backwards, accelerate and decelerate, jump and land and cope with dynamic moves. The best way to do this is in a competitive situation so that they can start to make game focussed decisions, even if it is at a basic elementary level.

By using sterile out of context practices you get short term improvements and there is little evidence that you get long term learning and there is also little or no transfer into a game situation.

The skill of the teacher is to know what is needed and what balance of practicing, drilling and playing games is appropriate. Sadly most PE lessons still have a predominance of skill based teaching. In addition to this sometimes children need to be left to it with little interference from the coach or teacher so that children are learning to make their own decisions. As in all areas of work in a school, the more we make ourselves redundant, and the children independent, the better we are doing our jobs.

Learning to drive a car is a great example. Where is best to do this? In a computerised studio and even along empty roads or out on the roads with other cars, pedestrians, roundabouts and crossroads where the unpredictable can happen at any point? The answer is obvious a real life relevant situation and it is the same in sport, real traffic, real time, real games and we get the skills to pass the test or play the game.

We need to teach phonics to help children to read but if we spend too long on them we lose the point of reading which is enjoying a book, or with drills we lose the passion for the game and sport. Skills teaching is essential, as is a phonetic awareness, both have their place but if PE becomes dominated by drills or reading by phonics we end up doing the children a great disservice.

So often in education the default mode of ‘because we have always done it that way’ takes over. This approach feels safer and easier for the teacher but we are here to do what is best for the children not what is easiest for the teacher.  SATs, phonics and SPaG tests are other examples of things in education that are of very little benefit to the child and are of more value to the adult or people who hold a school to account.

Adults and children are easily bored by routine tasks, they become reluctant and bored participants, we must get the balance right to keep the engagement. Children cannot however just get on with it, just as in more academic learning they need the support, coaching and the role modelling of a more able person, so must they have this in PE and Sport.

All too often PE lessons have become about the practice and not the game. Sport is not a static activity, we may need to return to teaching the basics, or in reading the phonemes when we judge it is necessary but predominantly we need to enjoy the book or the game and not constantly dissect it into its component parts and bore and disengage the learner whilst also losing site of what we want and need to achieve, a love of reading and in the case of this Blog, a love of sport.


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