Who are the real PE specialists?


I no longer buy into the outdated title ‘PE specialist’ nor the underlying assumptions regarding expertise that sit underneath it.

Specialist subject knowledge is simply not enough to provide the very best opportunities and physical activity experiences for every child. It is even worse to assume ‘sport’ knowledge counts as PE knowledge.

In a primary school setting, those teaching ‘PE to Jasmine’ need therefore first to specialise in understanding the developing young child, how learning is constructed and in applying effective and often personalised methods of delivering ‘to’ Jasmine.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t fabulous teachers with great PE subject knowledge out there but I would contend that many are also responsible for some of the poorest approaches and therefore the ongoing failure to create positive relationships with physical activity for generations of children.

Historic practice in PE teaching where we have given most care to children who were already able, already loving PE and Sport, is simply no longer acceptable. It angers me that some of my former colleagues, even some of my closest friends, can justify this behaviour by suggesting that they are working with the children who want it most, who are already showing commitment and who are already on the trajectory to lifelong physical activity. In doing this they dismiss their responsibility to create a safe, warm, inclusive environment and deliver a curriculum to engage and inspire every child. The acceptance that there will always be a significant number of children who hate PE allows teachers to neglect the very children who need the most input and attention and this should be publicly called out.

We must therefore challenge robustly those that neglect the needs of the majority whilst focusing on their own personal ‘hobbies’ in the misguided belief that their role is justified and affirmed through the high performance of a small percentage of children in some inter school team competitions.

Some of the issues undoubtedly lie in the way that our PE Specialists are trained. I did 60 hours of gymnastics training during my 4-year Bsc/Ed at Exeter Uni. As part of this, we did look at the ‘how to’ of teaching and explored some independent and reciprocal teaching methods to engage children through task cards in their learning. However, I was graded as part of my degree for a rings and high bar routine rather than my ability to teach children gymnastics or develop children through gymnastics! My knowledge that there are 206 bones in the human body has only helped me in quizzes whilst my deeper biomechanics knowledge helped me write a clever fundamental movement course about 15 years ago that broadly had zero impact in changing teachers’ practice. 1000s of teachers have attended various courses that increased their knowledge of what FMS are but left without any realistic solutions to support them in teaching differently.

So, we might impress our colleagues in our echo chambers, twitter networks, or over a drink at the weekend that our Year 6 children can make left handed layups in basketball. But, if we reach out into the bigger world we might also find that no one really cares.

What do we even mean when we say we have Specialist PE knowledge? When asked what PE contributes to the curriculum, many of us would cite core abilities and behaviours in addition to good early fundamental movement. These include perseverance, independence, cooperation, communication, problem solving, critical thinking, exploring and adapting. If all of these are important in ensuring a positive active future for children, is it possible we often look in the wrong direction when we look for guidance? 

It seems to me that the PE establishment has deliberately made those primary teachers outside ‘the club’ feel inadequate and therefore unable to teach PE successfully. We have pretended to help them by providing complicated curriculums, supported by unfathomable assessment schemes, somehow desperate to prove we are clever, with scores of bullet points to describe achievement and progress.

I have to ask how useful in modern teaching is my knowledge of specific rules, dated one-way teaching points or effective practice drills? The truth is, of course that they are largely irrelevant and often unnecessary. Yet, in trying to conflate a national curriculum for PE with aims to tackle obesity or address the alarming decrease in children’s daily activity, we have repeatedly failed to do anything but reinforce the status quo. Is it any wonder in our panic we are searching for nonsense solutions and against all the evidence we are now trying to make children run every day as a solution? This may increase a child’s daily activity but it is not going to make them fall in love with physical activity, nor is it going to address any wider curriculum goals.

Obesity, mental health and wellbeing are such major issues that it is more important than ever we find and support the very best deliverers of PE. But I would warn all PE teachers of the future that if they are to raise their status, they should show more patience, give more chances, engage those children who need it most. You would like to think that as a nation we will eventually invest significant resources in the people who make the biggest long-term difference to our children’s’ physical and mental health.

I think it’s time therefore to accept that it may well be the generalist primary school teachers who actually have the potential to be the real PE specialists. Already experts in teaching and learning, with deep understanding of each of their children, many of these generalist teachers are, with appropriate support, starting the revolution. It’s here we are beginning to see true cultural change where every child is valued in PE and given the opportunity to flourish and grow with confidence through joyful experiences, visible success and continued progress.

There is, I am pleased to say, good practice emerging. The very best primary school leaders are investing in developing the right staff, mostly their existing classroom teachers, to deliver rich successful PE curriculums.

This approach works because, to be successful, philosophy and principles have to come first. Knowledge and even teaching skills can be blunt tools in the hands of anybody who doesn’t desperately want to help all children and in particular the ones who need it most.

We need to help teachers use their skills, honed in other curriculum areas, to make children feel amazing about themselves in PE and immerse themselves in the joy of moving together. We watch their eyes shine when they realise their understanding of child development happens to be more useful than knowing how to hold a tennis racket ‘correctly’ or knowing the rules that a tiny fraction of adults use for basketball.

With the real PE approach, we invite those practitioners already expert at working with children, to celebrate and value what is most important and to align what they say and what they do with those aims. We provide a curriculum that focuses on the fundamental movement, thinking and emotional skills. We share the very best practice and discuss how we provide the learning nutrients, the simple rich essential elements that help children flourish and transform their activity.