Loving PE – What’s the price?

By Pam Stevenson, Director of Delivery at Create Development

This three(ish) part blog is a little self-indulgent exploration of how my personal experiences have contributed to my thoughts, beliefs, passions and philosophy about PE and school sport.

Part 1: Loving PE – What’s the price?
Sport and physical activity has always been a huge part of my life. I can’t imagine a week or even a day without something physical figuring in it and that’s how it’s always been. I was born into a classical “sporty” family. Both my parents represented Ireland. My dad was a cricketer and my mum, got lucky and played squash. (There were only two women’s squash clubs in Ireland at the time.)

At primary school my mum drove the netball team to all their matches in the back of a van without completing a risk assessment form. In fact without seatbelts or even seats. Then at the rather stuffy grammar school I attended, sport was the only thing that kept me sane, although I continually lived under the common threat of, “No hockey unless you behave better, dress neater, giggle less and concentrate more”. I have vivid, living, breathing memories of feeling hot and sweaty in just about every class and I still get a thrill in remembering a banana swerve goal that won us a school hockey final. But my clearest grammar school memory, is also one my weirdest memories. We turned up to play Skipton at hockey, on a Saturday morning and we were 10-0 up at half time partly because they didn’t have a goalkeeper. So what do you think happened?

A – We gave them a goalie?
B – We took off our best players?
C – My mum got padded up and went in goal?

Yes, much to my complete mortification but not really surprising it was C. We didn’t score at all in the second half mainly due to us all falling around and howling when we neared the goal!

On our three-day real PE programme, time and time again teachers offer up three words to describe their PE experience that demonstrate the polarization of people’s experience of PE:

Humiliating v Exhilarating
Cold v Fantastic
Embarrassing v Exciting

So, my three words to describe my school PE and Sport experience were: exhilarating, all-consuming and life-saving.

This was different for all my other siblings for different reasons. My sisters weren’t perceived as being ‘sporty’ so fell through the cracks and my brother, quite small for his age didn’t have the luxury of playing Kwik Cricket and so for a good few years struggled with the size and weight of a cricket bat, his confidence and self-esteem. So within our household we represented a little cameo of primary PE. If you’re good at PE it only gets better and better and if you’re not – tough! Time and time again real access, for the majority of children, to a PE curriculum simply wasn’t simple. Neither was it sensible or effective, and was light years away from inspiring.

The generalist primary teachers who do know children and learning have, for too long, felt bound to follow the ‘experts’ and delivered a sport-focused/teacher led PE curriculum. Without the appropriate support, clarity of messages or a clear alphabet of physical skills. This has often resulted in a wedge being further driven between the ‘haves’ (children with good Fundamental Movement Skills, confidence and opportunity) and the ‘have nots’.

Going to PE college just reinforced more of the same. Sport too early, too much theory and not enough fun and magic. So much so, I opted to do a dance degree in Year 2, having never really “danced”. (I had been thrown out of ballet aged eight when really it should have been Susan Kirk.)

This was my escape from skill acquisition and the archaic delivery of hockey and netball. I left PE college and got my first teaching job in the mid 1980s and suddenly I was asked to teach “Games for Understanding” and this is where my thinking began to change. The physically confident children had to contribute and challenge themselves more than just physically and the less physically confident children designed their own games allowing them to paint and star in their own PE canvas. I was also challenged as I began to question all my previous thoughts and beliefs about PE.

“Games for Understanding” was the first step on a very long journey towards real PE, arriving in my early 50s…Chatting with my sister over a beer one day it dawned on me: What if all the school PE I had loved and triumphed in came at a price? Robbing other people of the chance to love physical activity and sport. Systematically stripping away children’s love of moving and being active. Pretty much 100% of nursery aged children love running around and being active which isn’t the case in a Year 9 PE class. What happens in between? Can we create more children that, like dogs, are simply desperate to be given opportunities to run flat out and explore their environments actively?

At school the second the bell went, all I could think of was playing something and for me that something was luckily the only item on the menu – sport. Let’s expand the menu, equip those best to prepare and serve. Isn’t there too much at stake not to?