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Where does PE fit in the Curriculum?

Below is one of my assignments that I was required to submit for my PGCE. It was a hugely beneficial learning process, and I would be keen to discuss some of the thoughts expressed here and other points of view if anyone is interested.


Curriculum outlines the knowledge, skills, values and behaviours that learners are expected to demonstrate, which can include the standards and learning outcomes that students are expected to meet (Breed and Spittle, 2021). As stated by the Department of Education in England (which considers Physical Education (PE) as a foundation subject), the aims of the PE curriculum (key stage 3 and 4) are to develop competence to excel in a broad range of physical activities, enable sustained periods of physical activity, compete and participate in competitive sport and non-competitive activities, and to lead a healthy and active lifestyle. There have been numerous worldwide initiatives over the last 20 years to suggest that the inclusion of PE within the curriculum of study offers significant contributions to the development of young people. Such initiatives include the year 2005 being named the United Nations International year of PE and Sport. In August 2013, the United Nations assembly declared April 6 as the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, indicating that there are benefits to sport and PE outside of the physical aspects.

To illustrate this broad impact PE can have on a young learner, it is useful to look at the Breed and Spittle’s (2021) Game Sense model, which is based on the PE curriculum in the United Kingdom (UK), United States (US) and Canada, and Australia (Aus). Within this model, there are 3 categories of learning, broadly termed 1) skills, 2) knowledge, and 3) personal & social skills. These affective elements of PE are consistent within each of the three curricula mentioned above. For example, the US PE curriculum - SHAPE curriculum (SHAPE America, 2014) - supports pedagogies that address the needs of the whole child: physical, cognitive, social and emotional; while the purpose of the Department for Education (UK, 2014) curriculum is to inspire all students to excel in competitive sport and develop confidence, build character, and cultivate values like fairness and respect.

As mentioned above, PE is considered a foundation subject by the department of education in England. Core subjects, such as Maths and English, are generally considered to lay the foundation for development in other subjects, which means schools tend to direct more resources towards these core subjects, and university entry is heavily weighted towards the results students achieve in them. Jo Harris published an article in PE Matters (Summer 2018 edition), making a case for PE to become a core subject in the national curriculum. A number of points are outlined, one being the range of physical, social and psychological benefits that PE provides. This short discussion will assess:

1) the value of PE from a technical – namely knowledge and skills - and a social viewpoint - referring to the feelings, attitudes, values and behaviours, and

2) the issues of PE in the curriculum, and within PE as a profession.

Critical Discussion – the value and issues of PE

As with any foundation subject, there will be both positive and negative thoughts around its place on the curriculum. This discussion will briefly outline some of the direct (technical) and indirect (personal and social) skills that are benefitted from a thorough and comprehensive PE programme.

Technical Skills – Physical Literacy (PL)

An effective PE program, that is led by a skilled PE teacher will help to develop physically literate individuals (Corbin, 2016). Currently, there are a host of definitions and interpretations of the concept of PL, and this is one of the reasons why there is a lack of consensus around the topic. The term PL has been around since the 1900s (Corbin, 2016). Whitehead (2001) defined PL as “the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and engage in physical activity for life.” PL should not be used interchangeably with the provision of a PE program (Lynch and Soukup, 2016).

A key factor in the development of PL is enhancing competence in fundamental movement skills (FMS) (Barnett et al., 2016). FMS are foundational movements that form the basis of sport-specific movements. There are 3 broad categories of FMS:

· locomotion skills: running & jumping;

· object manipulation: striking & kicking;

· balance and stability: twisting & turning.

Gallahue et al. (2012) identified three key elements that should be considered when developing a student’s FMS. First, a student must be afforded the opportunity to practice. This can come in the form of structured play, unstructured play and can be dependent on the availability of equipment. The opportunity to practice is something that can vary widely between schools. Second, the quality of practice plays an important role. Practice must be inclusive and well organised, and the practice tasks should be at the optimum difficulty for the learner (Guadagnoli and Lee, 2004). Finally, the quality of instruction from the teacher can have a significant impact on a learner’s development and motivation. Constructive feedback, cues and appropriate questioning to guide the learner’s attentional focus (Winkleman, 2018) to enhance their performance all contribute to a learner’s development.

PE lessons afford all three of these key elements, and provides a student with the opportunity to develop FMS and, in turn, PL. But what is the benefit of enhanced PL? Based on the definition Whitehead (2001) provided, as well as enhancing physical capacities and improving movement skill behaviour, there must be a concurrent intervention to have the confidence and motivation to use these skills beyond secondary school. Roetert et al. (2018) outlined four core elements of PL: behaviour, motivation, motor skill, positive affect. These core elements provide students with the foundations to guide them on their PL journey, which can help to prevent health problems in adulthood, like obesity.

The development of these four core elements can also have a major impact in a sporting context too. FMS are foundational movements that form the basis of sport-specific movements. For example, football requires a combination of locomotion skills, object manipulation skills, and balance and stability to perform. The same could be said of an individual sport like tennis. Both of these sports, despite being largely different, require a combination of the same movement skills to compete. This highlights the value of FMS in developing elite athletes in sport.

A huge positive to the PE curriculum is the wide range of sports and activities that a student engages in throughout their education. This delayed sports specialisation provides enhanced youth development opportunities (Coakley et al., 2010). There is also a reduced injury risk with diverse sports participation (Myer et al., 2011). An important distinction to make here is that PE should not just be a range of sports. This is likely to turn young students off physical activity, as not every student will have the motor skills to compete at a reasonable standard. Playing sport may represent a challenge that is too high for some students, and this will result in a negative relationship between those students and sport. Rather, a range of sports is a single element of a comprehensive and thorough physical education program, alongside a range of non-competitive physical activities that provide desirable difficulties for students (Bjork, 1994).

Personal and Social Skills

The three curricula mentioned above (UK, US/Canada and Australia) all refer to a range of personal and social skills that are developed within PE, albeit using slightly different terminology. These personal and social skills include the attributes of feelings, attitudes, values and behaviours. Specifically in the US/Canada curriculum, one of the key learning outcomes is to “exhibit responsible behaviours and respects others and self”.

As Bailey et al. (2009) discusses, the 4 broad learning outcomes of PE (physical, cognitive, social and affective) facilitate students engaging in a physically active life. The social benefits of PE centre on cultivating young people’s ability to interact with others that ultimately benefit themselves, their schools and their communities. Bailey et al. (2009) outlines specifically the skills that a PE program can develop through working collaboratively, cohesively and constructively with others. These skills include:

· trust

· belonging

· empathy

· personal responsibility

· cooperation

It is believed these skills can help students develop resilience against difficult life circumstances (Bailey, 2005).

The place of PE in schools – the curriculum hierarchy

While it is clear that PE can be significantly beneficial for students, simply demanding more time for PE is not a straightforward solution. PE is one subject in a curriculum of subjects, something Donella Meadows (2009) would refer to as a “system”. And because time is a finite resource, increasing the time allocation on one subject means taking time away from another - essentially, robbing Peter to pay Paul. It is therefore useful to look at where PE fits within the overall curriculum, and how it is viewed in society.

Bleazby (2015) refers to the “traditional curriculum hierarchy”, which the author describes as a problematic idea that considers abstract subjects like mathematics and physics to be more valuable than vocational subjects like art and design and PE. A contemporary example to this traditional hierarchy is the English Baccalaureate, which was introduced in 2010. This is a performance measure for England’s general certificate of secondary education (GCSE), which identifies the number of students in each school that achieve a C-A* (more recently changed to 9-1) grade in mathematics, english, history/geography, science and a foreign language – all high-status subjects (Bleazby, 2015). There are issues that arise from this school of thought. One such issue is that it contributes to the social inequality of mainstream schooling through it bias against disadvantaged pupils from low-income families (Taylor, 2011).

Nevertheless, while the traditional curriculum hierarchy is not perfect, it does exist, and this represents a barrier to enhance the provision of PE in schools. As PE is considered a tier 4 subject in the traditional curriculum hierarchy, and is one of the “least prestigious” subjects on the curriculum, this provides a significant barrier for the PE profession, but it is not the only issue.

Internal issues of PE

There are a number of issues within PE that can lead to confusion and ambiguity around its impact on school students.

· As previously mentioned, the lack of consensus around PL can lead to a question: is the purpose of PE in schools to provide pupils with opportunities to be physically active, or is PE a learning area? The association for Physical Education (afPE) health position paper (2020) defines PE as “the planned, progressive learning that takes place in school curriculum timetabled time and which is delivered to all pupils”; and defines physical activity as “a broad term referring to all bodily movement that uses energy.” Physical activity can therefore include play, work related activities and habitual activities. The UK government guidelines are in line with these definitions, as it does not set a target for how much curriculum time schools must dedicate to PE (Department of Education, 2017).

However, back in 2005, the Australian government set out that all schools provide pupils with 120 minutes of physical activity in curriculum time. This indicates that PE lessons are viewed (in some parts of the world at least) as time in which students are exposed to physical activity, rather than becoming “physically educated” (Pill, 2007). As Roetert et al. (2018) state, PL is a broader construct than just participating in physical activities.

· A comprehensive review on PL by Giblin et al. (2014) identified a major flaw in much of the evidence supporting PL. If the primary objective of PE or the enhancement of an individual’s PL is to promote life-long involvement in sport and physical activity, then the research should reflect this, as opposed to immediate fitness gains. Integrating the behavioural, psychological and physical components of PL in evaluations is important to ensure an accurate measurement of an individual’s PL.

· As discussed previously, the quality of instruction is a key element in a student’s development of FMS (and ultimately PL). Therefore, there is a huge responsibility on the quality of teachers to ensure PE lessons provide a balanced, challenging and accessible stimulus for students from which they can grow. While it is a complex issue, a factor in the current obesity epidemic is that people have a negative relationship with physical activity. Upon entering this PGCE course, I mentioned to two colleagues that I was in the PE cohort, to which their response was “I hated PE in school, it was my least favourite subject.” This indicates that their PE lessons were too challenging and/or not accessible to them - lessons were beyond desirable difficulties (Bjork, 1994) - a result of teaching practice that failed to create positive affect with physical activity and movement, one of the core elements of PL.

However, pupil's negative relationship with physical activity is also a complex issue, and it is unfair to only question teaching practice, when there can be a number of contributing factors, In fact, a teacher can do all in their power to create a positive environment for students, but a small minority of pupils could still have a negative relationship with physical activity, due to external influences. This is an indication of the challenges that PE teachers are faced with year on year.

· Some content within the PE curriculum is not aligned with peer reviewed sports science literature. The Oxford Cambridge and RSA definition of Agility in GCSE PE is “how quickly you can change direction under control and maintaining speed, balance and power.” Contrast this to the definition widely accepted definition within the sports science profession – “a rapid whole-body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus” (Sheppard and Young, 2006). This is likely to cause confusion to students as they progress from secondary school should they progress to further study in sports science or strength and conditioning. More prominently, it is likely to cause teachers problems when designing activities as they are working to the wrong definition. The GCSE definition actually refers to change of direction speed, while the sports science definition is a more robust description of agility, where perception and action are treated as one entity (Davids et al.,2003).

Developing this point further, this could potentially cause further disparity between the PE profession and those outside (in this case the sports science profession). Perhaps, a progressive move would be to align the PE curriculum with undergraduate sports and health science university programmes, and this may assist in the enhancing the prestige in which PE is held at secondary school level.


On conclusion, it is clear that there are positive benefits for students to participate and engage in a structured PE program, both from a physical and social point of view. The physical benefits to a good PE curriculum are more obvious, as these can be identified in a student’s physique and sporting performances, for example. But the social benefits are perhaps less so, and can be exacerbated with a well-planned and thought-out curriculum and delivery within lessons – directing students’ attentional focus towards key qualities like respect, teamwork, resilience etc, all of which are qualities that can aid a student’s quality of life away from sport and physical activity. This can ensure that PE has a major impact on students’ whole lives rather than just a physical activity or sport point of view.

This piece was not drafted to be critical of those already in the profession, rather it has been a useful exercise to help me understand some of the challenges that lay ahead in my career, and some of the things in need to focus on in my development. References for this assignment can be provided on request.

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