Physical education

Why we scrapped PE for a healthier curriculum

Physical education is supposed to instil healthy habits for life in all our young people and it is fundamentally failing to deliver that, writes Gareth Evans

Physical education is supposed to instil healthy habits for life in all our young people and it is fundamentally failing to deliver that, writes Gareth Evans

31 Jan 2022, 5:00

It’s nearly a month since we all made our New Year’s resolutions, and for all our intentions, most of us have probably already given up on our ambitions of eating better, getting fitter and being healthier in general. That’s because being healthy and active isn’t about quick fixes like new gym memberships and juice cleanses. It’s about habits and lifestyle. And that’s why, since 2018, we no longer teach PE.

Before that change, we interviewed students, parents and teachers to understand why PE was such a ‘marmite’ subject. Many didn’t have fond memories to share. In fact, cold changing huts, aggressively competitive peers and uncompromising teachers had led many to dread it.

While for some the narrow focus on selection for competitive team sports was a much-needed outlet, for too many PE was a miserable experience that put them off being active altogether. In fact, many parents passed their negative perceptions of PE down to their children, and some staff even found themselves inadvertently communicating that PE was a dispensable subject.

So we set out to change all that. Our aims were to encourage all our students to adopt a positive relationship with healthy activity, to celebrate physical, mental and social wellbeing, and to develop the habits that lead to long, healthy, happy lives. We wanted to take PE lessons and transform them from something that benefited a minority while the majority endured it, into a more holistic curriculum for health and wellbeing for life. 

For too many, PE put them off being active altogether

The first step was to change the name, which implies a narrow focus on fitness and sporting skills. We wanted our students to realise that what we teach is about so much more. And the result is Healthy Active Lifestyles (HAL).

Our curriculum now focuses on developing students’ knowledge of physical, mental and social wellbeing through physical literacy and sport, so that each has a full understanding of how to look after their minds and bodies. Our drive throughout is to ensure students realise the role of exercise in promoting happiness and reducing stress and depression.

Next, we had to consider progression. While every aspect is touched on every year, every term and in most lessons, we have developed HAL so that year 7 focus primarily on physical wellbeing, year 8 on mental wellbeing and year 9 on social wellbeing. We regularly talk about the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle and the effects of exercise on the cardiovascular, respiratory and muscular systems, as well as emotional regulation.

And we constantly remind students that they don’t have to excel at sport to enjoy it or be healthy.

Our lessons cover topics in depth that we previously only had a chance to skim over: motivation and the psychology of winners, goal setting, body image, skills such as leadership, teamwork, resilience, independence and relationship building. We look at the impact of social media and how to stay healthy online. We examine social barriers to participation in sport and solutions to them.

There is no better place in the curriculum for growth mindsets than the immediate feedback of exercise. And there is little other place to practise relaxation, mindfulness and the power of mental imagery. Of course, our students are still taught sporting skills, tactics and rules through a breadth of activities. But that now better complements the work of other subjects. We examine the links between sporting and academic performance and how mental techniques used by sports people can transfer into other areas of life.

The department still embodies all the things that make up a traditional PE department, including clubs, competitions and links to local teams and clubs. The skills we teach naturally support any student who wants to pursue a career in sport.

But the knowledge gained through HAL also opens up a world of opportunity in the health and well-being sector, such as nursing, nutrition and personal training.

It’s a win for all our students. And for us? Well, it’s a resolution we’ve stuck to, and that’s all the evidence we need that it was the right thing to do.

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  1. Marlon ranghel

    I’m impressed with Gareth and his school’s approach to health and fitness. The old system of P.E has been too divisive and exclusive. Focusing on the minority at the expense of the majority. A holistic approach works better. There should be both competitive and non competitive pathways. Playing just for fun. Also a greater variety of activities on offer. Ask the students ! Also the the I.portance of diet and mental health. Very impressed the content of this article.

  2. Great article, Gareth
    Physical Literacy is definitely a lens through which to view all engagement with physical activity, and a PL approach in school is a clear and forward-thinking strategy. We would love to hear more about what you do and how you do it here at the International Physical Literacy Association (IPLA) If you have the inclination, contact us through the website. We would love to hear about it and maybe promote your work.

  3. PE was ritual humiliation when I was at school. I detested it and the people who taught it. I often thought there had to be a better way of encouraging young people to be healthy.