PE: More Than Sport

Lewis Keens
Feb 27 · 10 min read

In just 12 months, sport for children worldwide has changed beyond all recognition.

At our school, a standard term two would bring a packed ECA schedule, house events, overseas trips, local competition and all the incredible learning experiences and excitement that comes with such opportunities. Coaches, students and parents would be connecting, collaborating and supporting one another through various sports and activities, all whilst losing our voices cheering on KLASS Lions!

We are some way from returning to the opportunities we took for granted and for now, extracurricular sport is limited to strict SOPs, computer screens and individual skill progressions. While we look forward to returning to a packed calendar of competitive sport, the forced break has given PE teachers around the world the chance to think about the relationship between school sport and our curriculum subject ‘Physical Education’.

Blurred Lines

We know sport has been a part of school life for centuries, with the first-ever competitive school football match reportedly taking place in the UK on 9 December 1834 between Eton and Harrow.

Most rules in sports are universally agreed and understood by those who participate, (apart from VAR in Football but that’s for another time) yet ‘Physical Education’ as a term is used to describe a myriad of different experiences and activities that form two to three hours of a schoolchildren’s weekly timetable.

‘PE’ proudly took its place as a compulsory part of the UK National Curriculum in 1992. If you listen to some of the more cynical veterans of our profession, it was more of an ‘add on’ to the 1988 version of a very academically focused national education initiative. Either way, it was and still is a vital part of a child’s education.

At the core of its place in the curriculum was a focus for students to ‘achieve physical competence and confidence’ in various activities. Many schools opted to use sports as their chosen activities, which made sense given the popularity of after-school games and sports fixtures at British schools. This meant the lines between our curriculum subject and competitive, regulated sport were blurred from the start.

A 1990’s PE Experience

If you went to school in the UK during the ’90s, you likely participated in sports such as Football, Netball and Cross Country in PE during the winter term and Cricket, Rounders and Tennis when the weather was warmer.

The focus on physical competence — how fit, strong and skilful you were in those games activities determined your progress and possibly even your relationships with peers and the PE teacher.

Those students with physical competence and confidence were given the label ’sporty’, those without, ‘not sporty’. If you were in the not sporty category, your physical activity involvement likely stopped at school PE lessons. After all, you were not sporty, so you became less active and more switched off without any encouragement. On the other hand, if you were sporty, you were shoulder tapped for teams and extracurricular sport, given more opportunities to play the traditional sports, and you improved and got better. You were likely to be then asked to join external clubs, experience different coaching, possibly other games and activities, and further, develop your skills. You had a head start developing a positive relationship with sport and movement because you happened to be quite good at the few games you had access to in your PE lessons.

In short, PE was a diluted version of sport and a timetabled lesson for teachers to talent spot, rather than inspire.

1990’s PE?

Away From the Lights

Nelson Mandela once famously said ‘Sport has the power to change the world’.

Yes, sport might capture a nation’s attention during an Olympic year. You may see people partying in the streets with strangers during a World Cup or even, as we have seen recently, the public becoming more aware of discrimination in sport through initiatives like kneeling in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. All of these use and demonstrate the power of identity through sport.

But maybe it’s what happens away from the glitz and glamour, away from the lights where the real power of sport is evident.

Anyone that has played sport knows it takes hard work to improve, resilience to bounce back from defeat and perseverance to meet your personal goals, all of which often happen in less than glamorous facilities, on dark wet mornings without an audience. Sport takes strenuous physical work, often actual harm and, to be better or even successful requires a desire to learn, improve, evaluate and try again — to put yourself out there again and again.

Which comes first, the talent or the hard work and character? Matthew Syed in Bounce tells us it takes the elite (in sport, music and other fields) approximately 10,000 hours of meaningful structured practice to reach high performance.

The hard graft must come before the talent; no one is born an athlete — it takes time, intentional work and a lot of character.

So what is the difference between PE & Sport?

As early as 1995, research articles such as ‘Restoration and the Politics of Sport’ by Evans and Penney from Loughborough University, identified the need to clarify the differences between PE & Sport in schools:

‘Sport is a part of PE, but it can not be equated with PE. Whilst’ physical activity’ is the focus of sport, children’s ‘development’ is the focus of physical education.’

In his 2005 paper ‘Evaluating the relationship between physical education, sport and social inclusion’ Teaching Physical Education author, Richard Bailey dedicated a whole page of text to explain some of the key differences and similarities between PE and Sport; I have paraphrased below. Notice the phrase in bold:

‘Physical education’ is a statutory area of the school curriculum, concerned with developing pupils’ physical competence and confidence, and their ability to use these to perform in a range of activities… ‘Sport’ is a collective noun and usually refers to a range of activities, processes, social relationships and presumed physical, psychological and sociological outcomes. These activities include individual, partner and team sports; contact and non-contact sports; motor-driven or perceptually dominated sports’

Here is the same original National Curriculum (1992) aim again, this time on the marketing website for a large international school company accessed just a few days ago:

‘Physical Education (PE) develops students’ competence and confidence to take part in a range of physical activities that become a central part of their lives, both in and out of school.’

Undoubtedly one of the main aims of high-quality PE is to improve physical movement and skills (competence) and students’ self-esteem (confidence), but there is so much more to our subject.

The ‘Hidden Curriculum’ — Where PE Meets Sport

The content and delivery of PE in the last 20–30 years has been built around sport; the skills, rules, tactics and practices of major British sports adapted, modified and adjusted for age and ability.

The hard work away from the lights creates sportspersons of all ages, whether the extra work is playing with friends, going to ECAs or just practising in the backyard, it makes a difference and is a fundamental part of the journey.

As a subject, PE plays a massive role in working alongside sport in developing students’ personal and social skills, which can inspire physical skills, not necessarily just the other way around.

A recent single review study into Personal and Social Development in Physical Education (and Sports) by Opstoel et al. written for the European Physical education Review (2019), reports a positive impact on numerous transferable skills such as leadership, meeting new friends, communication skills, responsibility, cooperation, problem-solving and decision making.

By creating learning examples, connecting experiences and exploring transferable scenarios in PE lessons using the medium of physical activity, students can further develop the skills needed to support their own’ learning. Skills that can build emotional intelligence and improve social health are not just for sport but also for the workplace, relationships, and an unpredictable future.

By pulling the critical non-physical skills into the light, we better support students and develop their physical, psychological, and sociological skills to prepare them for uncertain futures and events, just like the one we are experiencing right now.

To do that, PE needs to be inclusive, holistic, accessible and challenging.

What does PE look like at KLASS?

The focus of a lesson needs to move away from the quality of performance and perfecting a skill; instead, it should create an environment where students feel confident enough to try something new. Suppose a student leaves each lesson, having tried something challenging or learned something new, whether physical, personal, or social. In that case, they can begin to identify how our subject can have a positive, individualised impact, regardless of physical ability.

We are a subject in which core values are part of our daily practice. Students often hear words such as teamwork, respect, resilience, kindness, and sportsmanship, but what do they look like?

Within lessons, in addition to the role of a participant, students also coach, lead, officiate, problem solve, develop literacy and numeracy skills, and self and peer reflect.

Some activity areas lend themselves to a student-led approach. For example, lessons involving dance and gymnastics allow students to show their creative sides and express themselves in a way not always appropriate in a session based on badminton skills.

KLASS students in full Problem-Solving mode!

These transferable skills and values are essential parts of a curriculum aimed to cater to all interests and allow students to ‘have a go’ at something they may never have considered, or towards which they have a preconceived judgment.

For example, a ‘normal’ half-term at Alice Smith will see PE delivered through various activity areas from dance and badminton to athletics and kayaking.

Key Stage 4 Pathways

Our job as teachers is to ask questions and explore more around the knowledge, interests, and experiences of our students here at Alice Smith School.

At Key Stage 4 (KS4), the PE curriculum consists of three pathways with student choice at the heart of programme design.

The Performance Pathway suits students who want to access competitive activities, focusing on improving performance and skill development, essentially physical competence and confidence. This pathway is often accessed by students that have established a very positive relationship with PE already, for example, GCSE PE students and those that represent KLASS at major sports events such as SEASAC.

The Participation Pathway focuses on different ways of being active and healthy while creating positive exercise and activity habits. Students have the opportunity to try alternative sports and activities not previously offered in lessons at Key Stage 3 (KS3).

Finally, the Aesthetic Pathway is for learners who wish to be challenged through personal and more creative forms of movement while trying to create positive exercise and activity habits.

Creativity and Risk Taking

We want to offer students a Leadership Pathway too as a further opportunity to build specific transferable skills they can use across all aspects of life.

Changing perceptions of what a PE lesson looks like can be difficult, and, as outlined earlier, past experiences and traditional approaches will influence participation.

If a student’s PE experience at KS3 evolves from enjoyment, challenge, variety, and opportunity, they will consider exploring the subject further. As a PE department, our examination pathways are inclusive and don’t just focus on the students with the best practical abilities. The vast cross-curricular links to GCSE and A-Level’s theoretical content cater to various interests, and the subject leads to many different career paths from physiotherapy to journalism. It can also directly complement further study in biology, physics, psychology, and sociology.

Virtual Learning

When virtual learning emerged due to Covid-19, it would have been easy to succumb to the difficulties we faced as a subject. Arguably, the impact was more significant on PE than any other subject area, given our subject’s nature.

Initially, we were focused on maintaining activity levels and delivered lots of teacher-led fitness sessions back in March 2020. Still, as the prospect of being online for a significant period became more likely, we chose to adapt and embrace the learnings that lay ahead of us as educators.

The opportunity to focus on education, the ‘E’ in ‘PE’ presented itself.

Through collaboration as a subject team, students’ virtual PE lessons combine theoretical concepts and personal & social development with physical challenges to complete at home.

In term two, one of our units focused on students transferring their knowledge and understanding of fitness components to their favourite sport and demonstrating their learning through practical application. Outcomes included students filming themselves demonstrating a vast array of skills and health-related fitness components, including balance in football when shooting and flexibility in yoga.

Students edited their video to comment verbally or visually, explaining how they used the component in a sport-specific situation and real-life whilst providing scenario-specific advice and suggestions on improving fitness components and taking measurements.

What’s Next?

We continue to reflect on our current practice and curriculum design, listening to student preference and aiming to provide a structure to ensure high-quality teaching and learning continues in our new environment.

Our in-school schemes of learning may focus on an activity area but our curriculum is adjusted for the moment so students experience more personal and social content; ranging from goal setting to leadership and theoretical knowledge such as the importance of fitness and warming up and cooling down to prevent injury.

Transferable skills you learn through your PE research, such as decision-making, collaboration, communication, and independent thinking, are vital to any career path our students choose to take.

We are in a period of change and cultural shift that will take time to embed, but one of our aims must remain — for students to recognise that in PE they can make progress and be successful without necessarily excelling in a sport.

Our mission is for students at Alice Smith to ‘be the best version of themselves’, and for that, we need to think bigger than physical competence and confidence.

Written by Lewis Keens (Director Of Sport) and Alice Curwood (Head of Curriculum PE), The Alice Smith School, Kuala Lumpur.

Originally written as a KLASS Times article for our parent community.

Follow us on Twitter:

Lewis Keens @lewisjkeens


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Lewis Keens

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Age of Awareness

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Lewis Keens

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PE | Sport | Health | Well-Being | Leadership —

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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