Physical education and physical activity – combatting the cultural shift

In a recent article ‘UK sport chief: PE is not just a game’ (1), Baroness Campbell outlined a core challenge for primary schools in finding PE specialists and claimed of some headteachers: “[Heads] don’t know what high quality PE looks like…It’s as if they look out the window and see kids running around, making lots of noise, and think that’s fine because they’re burning off energy.” This generated a wealth of discussion around better PE training for teachers to ensure children finishing the primary phase of their education are physically literate and able to demonstrate basic skills (e.g. running, jumping, catching and throwing) as well as fitness.

But even those of us who are physical education and sport specialists, as providers of private sector extra-curricular sports activities as well as those delivering in schools and local communities, are put under scrutiny with headlines like ‘Are interventions to promote physical activity a waste of time?’(2) and ‘After-school activity may have minimal effects in physical fitness says BMJ’ (3). The context of many of these studies is often lost in the uproar of who feels insulted by what and the variety of overlapping specialist areas – physical activity, physical literacy, properly managed competitive sport, reducing drop-off levels in participation, health management (particularly sedentary lifestyles and obesity) and academic performance – which are thrown together in the broad discussion of what to do for the best and how to make it stick.

The emphasis on updating teacher training and the ‘minimal effects’ of extra-curricular activities on physical fitness are indicative of changing times. In school teachers are face with the aftermath of sedentary out-of-school habits and it’s possible that the time spent in extra-curricular activities simply replaces the former self-generated options such as playing out or the less supervised outdoor activities of times past, rather than adding to them. And this is just the beginning when it comes to a cultural shift:

·Only 33% boys and 21% of girls currently meet UK guidelines of at least 60 minutes of physical activity of moderate to vigorous intensity for at least 60 minutes a day (4);

·Up to 70% of adults in England do not do the recommended minimum amount of physical activity (5).

Modern day pressures and pleasures are sedentary, which bring the need for physical education and physical activity to the fore – not one or the other but both. The reality is that we need to be more consciously active than ever in order not to fall foul of technological shortcuts and the likes. In being more conscious of the activity we do and increasing awareness of what we need (6), a good foundation in physical education is a must as well as enough moderate to vigorous physical activity (sports-based or otherwise) to keep us fit and having fun.

The key to a lasting impact is balance alongside the help of teachers, coaches, family and friends – if we have the PE basics and are able to run, jump, catch and throw then each of us can enjoy playing sports competitively or socially and even ‘make lots of noise…and [burn] off energy’ through other physical activities of choice (if this is what makes it fun for those taking part!). We all have different motivations but a solid physical education can give us the tools with which to enjoy physical activity in whatever form for the rest of our lives.

So, good training for teachers is key. Good training for coaches is key. Accessible research, information and opportunities for families are key. But none of these will ever make a big enough impact in isolation. The government, schools, independent specialists and families must share the responsibility and support each other in order to instigate what can only be described as a tricky cultural change. Let’s take the criticism and the research and stand shoulder-to-shoulder as positive, proactive, informed and enthusiastic ‘active practice’ role models who can balance physical education and physical activity in the best way for each and every one of us.


1 ‘UK sport chief: PE is not just a game’ – by Richard Vaughan and Kerra Maddern,

2 ‘Are interventions to promote physical activity in children a waste of time?’

3 ‘After-school activity may have minimal effects on physical fitness says BMJ’

4 ‘Are interventions to promote physical activity in children a waste of time?’

5 ‘Time to move: the major benefit physical activity’

6 BHF – physical activity guidelines – ‘Start active, stay active’