After England’s victory at Euro 2022, many women, including the Lionesses themselves, commented on the lack of football during their schooling. In fact, England Football, part of the Football Association, recently reported that only 44% of secondary schools in England offer equal football coaching to boys and girls.
But many people don’t have fond memories of physical education (PE) in general.
When you think back to your school experience, do you remember having to run in the snow or in the pouring rain to go cross-country skiing? Participate in dodgeball and get punched in the face? The repetitive sound of the test beep? Or being separated from your friends who could do things like football that you desperately wanted to do, but couldn’t do because of your gender?
When I lecture across England in my role as a physical education specialist in teacher education, I am often approached by an influx of people who have had negative experiences with physical education.
Issues such as everyday sexism and persistent patriarchal values play out in sports, physical education and schools in general. And, as research suggests and those I spoke to can attest, such issues can have a detrimental lifelong impact on a person’s relationship with exercise and sport. As such, the EP needs to change for everyone.
The challenges of PE
A narrow curriculum is often informed by the teachers’ own sporting loves. This can be seen in the continued recycling of traditional sports, such as football, rugby, cricket and athletics for boys and dance, netball, rounder and athletics for girls.
This gendered and arguably sexist approach robs children of opportunities, but it continues today in many schools in England. This is often accompanied by ableist and elitist issues, such as subjecting children to grueling physical fitness tests and judging them on their ability to perform certain techniques in order to separate them by their physical abilities.
Focusing each lesson on the technicality of the sport is undoubtedly a very dated pedagogical approach. Having every lesson dictated by a teacher that requires a warm-up, skill practice and then a game isn’t entirely inspiring or creative. Research suggests that it would be much more beneficial to inspire young people through a negotiated program, giving young people choice in what and how they want to participate.
As a detail in my recent co-authored book, there are many other ways to make PE more modern and fair. In my experience working in countless schools, young people enjoy physical education more when they are exposed to these types of practices.
But schools often don’t realize they are engaging in highly inequitable practices and offering students little choice, as many teachers simply imitate their own physical education experiences. It is also likely that these teachers were not challenged throughout their training to think differently.
So instead of seeing that their role is to ensure that all young people can find ways to enjoy movement that can be carried throughout life, they simply continue the cycle of outdated and uninspiring PE. . When a teacher who wants to shake things up arrives, they can sometimes be immersed in outdated practices championed by heads of departments who have a different curriculum. The desire to create elite sports stars is perhaps the most common – not very inclusive for students.
Another issue affecting the EP is that the goals of the different movement spaces have been blurred. For example, there are clear differences between physical education (learning everything physically related during school time), school sports (organizing school meetings perhaps for selected individuals), extracurricular clubs (for that all students participate in after-school activities) and sports for young people (outside of school). Each of these movement spaces serves a different purpose and learning in each should be different.
For example, you might learn about calorie-burning myths and why they are way too simplistic based on our different lifestyle factors. You might also learn that you enjoy individual activities like swimming, parkour, or rock climbing rather than invasion games, like soccer or netball. But in after-school clubs, youngsters can learn that they like exercising in the morning rather than after school or that being with friends who aren’t in their PE class makes exercise More fun.
It’s time to change
Spaces in which people move their bodies, such as gyms, gymnasiums and swimming pools, are natural playgrounds that can inspire all kinds of skills like teamwork and camaraderie, respect and safety. and can break down barriers of social inequality, such as gender stereotypes.
Where appropriate, schools should offer coeducational physical education classes that nurture democratic values such as collaboration and equality rather than sexism and hierarchies. They should seek to provide young people with a range of culturally relevant options beyond traditional sports, especially those that could be sustained throughout life: skateboarding, jumping rope, self-defense or mountain biking.
Schools and especially physical education teachers have the power to make serious changes to the curriculum to provide all young people with engaging, enjoyable and equitable spaces to move their bodies in activities that will encourage them to move. All their life.