CRITICAL REVIEW OF PHYSICAL EDUCATION. PRIMARY TO SECONDARY SCHOOL IN THE UK: IS IT TIME FOR A NEW APPROACH?
The media is constantly stating that children and young people are becoming less active, unhealthy and generally sedentary (Guthold et al. 2010, Pate et al. 2011, Prentice, 2006). Furthermore, the World Health Organisation (WHO) frequently release global figures that reflect this statement, plus, the rate of overweight and obesity in children and young people are increasing year after year (Balsamo et al. 2017). This is a major Public Health concern as being overweight and/or obese will have long-term health implications and inevitably place the children and young people as high risk for long-term diseases syndrome (Weihrauch-Bluher et al. 2018) such as diabetes, vascular disease, high blood pressure and the umbrella term known as metabolic syndrome (Cruz et al. 2004).
The below tables express the importance of this challenge, and the need for immediate change and reform when it comes to health and wellbeing of our next generation.
From the figures, and the projections from the WHO, this problem is rapidly escalating. As education should be a foundation and drive prevention, with the notion that prevention is better than cure, is it time to critically review the Physical Educational Curriculum and ask key questions, including, why is PE in the UK falling short? And do we need objective outcomes to drive accountability?
Terminology, National Guidelines and the National Curriculum
With this enormous Public Health challenge, we are faced with concerning our next generation, unbelievably, the schools which follow the Statutory Curriculum (Department of Education), only allocate 120 minutes of physical education per week for 5 – 14-year-olds. Furthermore, this limited weekly allowance is only recommended, allowing each school to decide on the actual amount of physical education they deliver. This general theme of physical activity to help children and young people to stay healthy is also expressed in the National Guidelines (Department of Health & Social Care, 2019), with the National Guidelines stating that children and young people (ages 5 to 18) should perform sixty-minutes of activity per day. However, the duration and or frequency of physical activity/education maybe a red herring, as physical education or physical activity has shown repeatedly to be a poor intervention when trying to reduce obesity levels (Flynn et al. 2006., Thivel et al, 2010.). Harris et al. (2009) conducted a meta-analysis on the effects of physical activity and the changes in body mass index in school children, and reported that there were no changes in body mass index from 15 out of the 18 cited studies, and thus concluded that increasing physical activity is extremely unlikely to have any significant effect, or preventative mechanism, on childhood obesity. Furthermore, grouping children and young people together with an age range from 5 to 18 is far too simplistic, as there is no mention of maturation, measurable outcomes and/or milestones relative to physical attributes, which would certainly help and pave physical developments.
Unfortunately, this vague and unstructured theme, based mostly on movement and general activities is also seen in the National Curriculum (NC) (Department of Education, 2013) for Key Stage 1 (KS1), Key Stage 2 (KS2) and even Key Stage 3 (KS3), Key Stage 4 (KS4). For example, the Primary school’s KS1 NC, highlights all children should master the basic fundamental movements skills, along with balance, agility and coordination and perform dance movements. KS2 NC, continues with these areas but also includes that children should develop flexibility, strength, technique, control and balance.
From the outside this sounds like a thorough, well-thought Physical Education curriculum, however, it raises many challenges for example, the term movement skills or fundamental movement skills is extremely subjective, and it is questionable if you can even actually master them, as the movement would be relative to its specific environment and/or task. Associations have tried to make the movement skills more objective using the Test of Gross Motor Development (National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey, 2012), but this test is still highly subjective as it is an observational test. We have to be extremely careful with motor skill or motor learning, for example, take any exercise or drill, and consider the multiple degrees of freedom available, with evidence suggesting that motor learning is task specific (Newell et al. 2003). Therefore, if we compare this approach to another subject, say English, and used this method, how many words would a child need to learn in order to master the letter A?
Moreover, using a similar analogy, playing games without using fundamental movement skills is akin to teaching English without the alphabet, therefore, why do coaches continue to try and teach these skills in isolation? Furthermore, following evidence on motor development (Venetsanou et al. 2001) and skill acquisition (Smith, 2011), trying to isolate skills such as balance, agility and coordination simply cannot be achieved as well as proving difficult to measure and compare.
The NC at KS3/4 moves away from movement skills and isolated physical attributes and starts to highlight sport, sports participation, competitive sports and team games. Again, from the outside this seems logical and in the best interest of young people, however, should a Physical Educational programme or the NC focus on sport, or alternatively, aim to prepare the young people for the demands of the sport, both at recreational and competitive levels.
As the vast majority of the Physical Education curriculum is based on general activity and participation in sports, how do we know that we are physically preparing children to move from primary school to secondary school? Literature suggests there is less physical disparity between children pre-puberty, with both genders demonstrating similar rates of physical development and growth, however, due to the onset of maturation, there could be up to two years difference in physical development between peers as children reach secondary school age, whilst females mature up to two years earlier than males. Therefore, teachers and coaches need to be aware, and have an understanding of, the changes within the body and the effect this may have on pupil’s performance and psychology, whilst also appreciating the differing training requirements of these age groups.
Physical Education and a Long-term Athletic Development Framework
From reviewing the National Guidelines and the NC for KS1, KS2 and KS3/4, we can clearly see and identify gaps when comparing the whole NC to a long-term athletic development (LTAD) framework (Table 1).
Table 1. Gaps within the National Curriculum
By restructuring the NC from KS1 to KS4, objective measures can be implemented, especially at KS3/4, where a pupil-centred approach can be deployed, empowering young people to take responsibility for their overall health, wellbeing and sports preparation (Lloyd et al. 2012). As part of this pupil centred approach, once a child enters KS2, physical attributes are monitored along with participation levels and personal bests, forming a detailed athletic development report that travels with the child through the key stages, tracking maturation, allowing coaches and teachers to differentiate activities to ensure children are sport ready. It is embarrassing that, in a society where data is more important than oil, we do not document the physical development of our children, yet instead rely on poorly thought-out policy, driven by monetary gain, with a detrimental effect on the long-term health of children and young people.
In all areas of life, young people should be celebrated for their achievements with this detailed report forming an integral part of an athletic development framework, with pupils celebrating their own personal bests and those high achievers put forward to compete in the school Olympics. Whilst schools currently compete in local, regional and national track and field competitions, the school Olympics would encompass a wide spectrum of events, in turn, providing more opportunities for increased participation.
Figure 1. provides an overview of the current Key Stages, with recommendations on the changes required in order to provide a pupil centred approach to Physical Education. It places an initial emphasis on the development of physical qualities through frequent play and games, in order to prepare pupils for the demands of sport, rather than using sport as the stimulus, with the exposure provided outside of school.
Figure 2. displays the amount of time dedicated to each area of the curriculum. However, what it does not demonstrate is the need for individualisation of the model for children of different sex, maturity status, and training history. This information should be documented and used to monitor pupil development and achievement.
As demonstrated by this review, Physical Education in the UK requires drastic reform, evidenced not only by the health of our youth population but also the numbers of children that leave sport early either through lack of interest, burnout or injury. As such, health and wellbeing of all children and young people should form the foundation of this LTAD framework.
KS1 should see an abundance of free play to drive motor learning and development, allowing the environment to promote self-organisation. Children initially learn sport outside of school, with the aim of PE to prepare children for the demands of sport at a later stage. Thus, as children move onto KS2 and beyond, they begin to build upon this foundation of skill within a pupil centred, long term youth strength & conditioning framework that objectively measures pupils in the following areas.
Table 2. PE key stages with objective measurements
By using these objective outcomes, we can further determine subjective measures such as health and wellbeing, whilst also using the data to improve the quality and depth of research in this highly important area, especially in strength training and preparing young people a lifetime of sport participation.
Figure 1. Recommendations for a Long-Term Athletic Development Framework
Figure 2. Physical Education and a Long-Term Athletic Development (KS1 to KS4)
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