The illusion of progress in school sport and physical education policy

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You could be forgiven for thinking that policy changes gradually lead to an improvement in the status quo over time. Considering the recent history of policy in school sport and physical education, this would certainly seem to be the case: the main aim of policy in 2002, set out by Tony Blair’s government in Game Plan was…

“ensuring that 75% of 5-16 year olds [spend] at least 2 hours of high quality physical education and sport per week in and beyond the school curriculum by 2006” (pp.57)

…i.e. at least 2 hours per week including both curricular and extra-curricular time. This was thought to be pretty ambitious, and was followed up in 2009 (in The PE and Sport Strategy for Young People) with even more ambitious targets:

“by […] 2010-11, 80% of 5-16 year olds […] to take part in 3 hours a week of PE and sport organised by schools and 40% […] to take part in 5 hours a week” (pp.6)

Histogram of hours of curricular PE/movement/games per week by sex at age 10 in the BCS70
Histogram of hours of curricular PE/movement/games per week by sex at age 10 in the BCS70
This makes it seem like we have been making continuous linear progress toward having physical activity as a key part of the educational offer. But this is not the case. My analysis of the British Cohort Study 1970 (BCS70) dataset has turned up an intriguing result. In 1980, when the children being studied were 10 years old, the average (mean) curricular time spent on “PE/ movement/ games” per week, as reported by teachers, was 115 minutes and only about 15% participated in less than 1.5 hours per week. The image above shows a histogram of the data by sex (click it to zoom it up in a new window). This 1980 average compares with a 2009/10 average for primary school pupils of 127 minutes (see the PE and Sport Survey, 2010), nearly 30 years later! Has all this effort really only added 12 minutes per week on average to the primary curriculum in 30 years? Well, no. What actually happened is that curriculum time pressures led to school sport and PE being relegated in the intervening years. It went down, and recently has gone up again as the childhood and adult overweight and obesity issue has reared its ugly head. Physical activity rose on the political agenda, and monitoring of schools’ progress against the targets drove a recent, impressive turnaround.

This history reflects a constant shortcoming of politics and policy making: short-termism. There will always be competing priorities which are demanding more and more from our educational system, schools, and children and teachers within them. Education and the supplementary activities it provides are seen as a possible solution for the many health, social and economic issues we are faced with as a nation. Perhaps we need to decide – in the long run – what is our educational system really for? What should it provide and what should be provided elsewhere? Is intervening in schools a good idea, or is it simply a sticking plaster approach that ignores the more fundamental issues?

In 2010, Michael Gove scrapped targets for school sport and physical education completely:

“I am removing the need for schools to:

  • plan and implement their part of a ‘five hour offer’;
  • collect information about every pupil for an annual survey;
  • deliver a range of new Government sport initiatives each year;
  • report termly to the Youth Sport Trust on various performance indicators;
  • conform to a national blueprint for how to deliver PE and sport, and how to use their staff and resources; and
  • get permission from the Youth Sport Trust and the Department to use their funding flexibly or to vary how they do things.

In giving schools this freedom, we are trusting school leaders to take decisions in the best interests of the pupils and parents they serve”

It is now up to schools to decide what to do. Will they retain provision at current levels, or will it be eroded yet again by the pressures of achieving exam results? Unfortunately, it won’t be easy to find out, as Gove has also scrapped all monitoring.