‘On your marks, get set, go!’ As the students race to record their answers to the exam style questions, their PE teacher glances wistfully out of the window at the empty school field. Instead of recording personal best track times, the students are being timed completing questions about the muscular contractions they would be using if there were more time on the course for practical sport.
Article written by Michelle Johnston
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 UKEd Magazine.
I have been fortunate to work in a school which values Physical Education, the facilities are excellent and students are offered a wide breadth of sports, such as climbing and trampolining, which were not offered when I was studying. There seems to be greater opportunity for innovation in lessons, including exciting technology and sporting experiences which I would have valued as a student. However, examination courses in P.E are busy giving it a facelift whilst setting the subject up to become more biased towards theory and cognitive skills with changes to the GCSE which mean that students practical performance is less weighted than their ability to write about it. In our own school, GCSE students timetables include more classroom lessons than practical ones, where, despite the best efforts of their teachers to engage and motivate them, they dream of football glory and the chance to take part in the sports they love.
This emphasis has an impact which cascades down into KS3 – where we are already preparing them for the knowledge, skills and understanding needed for a qualification in three years time. There is always a pressure to perform at Ks4 and this means students need to be equipped at the earliest stage possible, from the moment they walk into the sports hall on their first day and are questioned about their knowledge of fitness components. In an age where 1 in 3 year six children are categorised as obese or overweight (Public Health, 2015) this shift away from active learning and sporting performance is a concerning and confusing one.
Other changes to GCSE courses include a narrowing of the sports which can be offered as part of the practical element. Popular school sports such as Rounders, which has long been a part of the curriculum in English Schools, will no longer be an option. Whether or not this will affect the curriculum time it is given lower down the school is yet to be seen.
The changes to the subject are, to some extent, understandable. It has struggled to achieve the status of more ‘academic’ subjects in schools and take pride of place on the podium of school priorities. By its very nature it is a subject which often appeals to the students who prefer moving and doing over those who are suited to sitting and studying, but these students are equally deserving of experiences which enthuse them and promote a love of learning.
We are also constantly battling against the age of technology – with lessons fighting to compete with the excitement of computer games, where students are constantly bombarded with changing images, sound effects, backing tracks and constant action. They are hyper-alert when playing their console in their leisure time, where they cannot lose focus without facing the in game consequences, sometimes as severe as death or injury to their character, and this level of stimulation is hard to reproduce in a classroom environment. In the meantime, the PE team in school continue to strive to provide a breadth of sporting experiences, remembering their own priorities for physical education. Firstly to introduce students to sports, offering them the chance to develop the skills and concepts involved in participation. Secondly to capitalise on the wider social, mental and physical benefits of sport and exercise, including the ever important skills of teamwork, problem solving, communication and leadership, and finally to nurture sporting talent and encourage life long participation.
In my own experience, it is the teachers who inspired me, who were my role models and whose lessons I remember, rather than the exams I studied for and therefore I remain positive that it is the teachers of today who will make a student’s experiences memorable and enjoyable and hopefully ignite a life long passion for sport and exercise, regardless of the expectations set upon schools through examination courses.
Michelle trained as a teacher of Physical Education at Brunel University and has been teaching the subject for eight years. She completed her Masters in Education in 2015. She is now teaching Physical Education and English in a secondary comprehensive in Kent.