May 22, 2022, by Rupert Knight

Have we dropped the ball? Promoting PE in the primary curriculum.

In this blog, Esther Fulton reflects on the place of PE in the primary curriculum and suggests how its status might be raised.

PE expectations

As the Teachers’ Standards state, teachers need to have a secure knowledge of curriculum areas and manage classes effectively both in classrooms and around the school. PE is one of these distinctive curriculum areas due to it not being classroom-based and, maybe linked to this, it appears to be viewed as a marginal subject within the curriculum.

At the University of Nottingham, we have recently been focusing on how our ITE primary students gain enough confidence and competence to teach foundation subjects. All primary teachers are required to have a broad knowledge in many different curriculum areas and certain subjects can cause some teachers more anxiety due to their lack of confidence and expertise in the subject. One of these subjects appears to be PE.

The DfE’s guidance states that ‘physical activity has numerous benefits for children and young people’s physical health, as well as their mental wellbeing’ which in turn will ‘improve behaviour as well as enhance academic achievement’. The National Curriculum for PE aims to ensure all pupils:

• develop competence to excel in a broad range of physical activities
• are physically active for sustained periods of time
• engage in competitive sports and activities
• lead healthy, active lives

The Association for PE recommends that pupils are active for 50-80% of the PE lesson and this physical activity is focused on the intended learning. Ofsted research in 2018 found that only 69% of schools had the recommended 2 or more hours of PE in the timetable each week and found that important time was being lost in getting changed and setting up equipment. Therefore, a considerable number of minutes of each lesson were being lost.

Recent research suggests that primary PE is typically delivered by a combination of three groups. These are generalist primary teachers, specialist primary PE teachers and sports coaches. However, when PE is left to generalist teachers, other research by Whipp, Hutton, Grove & Jackson has shown that a combination of factors e.g. lack of knowledge, training, and confidence, results in negative teacher attitudes towards PE and reduced capability to plan and teach effective lessons. Also, as found by Sprake and Temple in 2016, teachers’ philosophies can be shaped and changed by their own personal experiences of PE and so they can enter the profession with a ‘narrow and selective mind-set’.

Due to the lack of competence and confidence among some schools in teaching PE, many teachers have given up teaching PE with an active willingness and handed it over to external sports coaches. When the government introduced the 2013 incentive of providing funding to improve the quality of PE provision in every state primary school in England, the majority of schools used their PE and Sport Premium funding to hire these coaches which has left some teachers never having to teach PE.

Although the DfE claim that PE should lead to ‘healthy, active lives,’ government figures in 2018 showed that 30% of Year six pupils were classed as ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’. Following this research and the impact of Covid, getting children to be more physically active did become a focus for some schools after many children were forced to stay indoors and missed out on playing outside or competing in team sports. However, it has become one of those curriculum areas that can get squeezed out, or at least greatly reduced from the timetable as more focus is put on the core subjects.

More than just physicality

Looking more closely at education for social justice, which is a underlying theme throughout our ITE provision, the recent Ofsted research review into PE highlights that timetabled PE lessons might be the only opportunities some pupils (especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds and those with specials educational needs or disabilities) have to benefit from physical activity and develop competence and understanding of sport. Therefore, an ambitious curriculum should ensure that all pupils benefit from physical activity and sport and lead to more pupils believing that PE is for them and reducing inequalities. Teachers need to understand the physical and cognitive processes involved in PE lessons such as the ability to plan, perform, evaluate, solve problems, make decisions, reflect, answer questions and work collaboratively and cooperatively (Pope, 2019). PE can offer a platform to explore and develop a multitude of learning opportunities. All in all, high quality PE teaching and assessment can help with the development of well-balanced responsible individuals, as seen in this AfPE diagram. The Ofsted review has suggested that high-quality PE may have the following features:

• Teachers and leaders recognise that learning takes time. They make sure that pupils have enough time to revisit and develop their knowledge within a context before moving too quickly on to a new sport or physical activity.
• Leaders planning the curriculum are clear that the sport or physical activity being taught matters.
• They select physical activities and sports based on capacity to develop pupils’ competence within PE. They use the 3 pillars (motor competence; rules, strategies and tactics; and healthy participation) to help identify key concepts to teach and for pupils to learn and build pupils’ understanding incrementally.
• The PE curriculum meets the needs of all pupils. All pupils feel included and able to succeed within the subject.
• The extra-curricular offer is available for all pupils. It provides opportunities to build, develop and refine knowledge and in this way benefits from a symbiotic relationship with the curriculum subject PE.

Promotion of PE in schools

So how do we promote PE within primary schools and encourage more teachers to gain in confidence in teaching this subject? Making use of the sports coaches within school could help to foster more enthusiasm for the subject- by getting teachers more involved in the planning and participation of these lessons and not sitting back and just observing as this summary of Ofsted’s PE research suggests. Or finding good quality CPD to share with the whole school so that it is embedded through each year group could enhance confidence as teachers step out of their comfort zones. This could just be the sharing of videos as a starting point, or using the funding to train a PE coordinator to then design a PE curriculum that fits in with the school cohort and involves all staff. Introducing more extra-curricular sporting activities, could encourage teachers who are more confident to share their knowledge with others and encourage more active learning amongst pupils. PE is a subject that can help promote learning outside of the classroom context, as mentioned in one of my previous blogs-Outdoor learning: a waste of space? Teachers who gain confidence in using different spaces to encourage learning can also help promote good behaviour management and enhance the children’s learning.

Here is an example of how one rural junior school promoted PE within their curriculum in order to embed a culture of school sport. These were the key changes implemented by the school:

• the breadth and number of extra-curricular sports clubs were increased so that every pupil in the school could attend at least one
• lunchtime monitors were trained and used to deliver different sporting zones so children could have three sports to choose from during playtime
• intra and inter school sports competitions were increased, promoting healthy competition
• a system of Olympic values was introduced, encouraging all children to demonstrate respect, excellence, friendship, determination, inspiration, courage and equality
• special sports assemblies were held to celebrate sporting achievements and to highlight children who had demonstrated correct sports values within their school day

Through these changes the school noticed a change in children’s attitudes towards learning and it had an impact on their wider behaviour and academic achievement (Pope, 2019).

Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework sets out how it will inspect schools and how they are looking for intent, implementation and impact of the curriculum. Therefore, schools must use their PE and Sport Premium funding to make additional and sustainable improvements to the quality of PE, School Sport and Physical Activity (PESSPA). As the Youth Sports Trust state, schools need to reflect on the impact of their current provision and review their spending. They offer a table to update and publish on school websites so that there is evidence of ongoing self-evaluation of how funding is used to ‘secure maximum, sustainable impact’. PE needs to be recognised as an important part of any school’s curriculum. As the Ofsted Research review states:

‘Without the important building blocks of efficient, intelligent and healthy participation, pupils can be limited in the choices they have to engage in the world of sport and physical activity. PE is not for some; it is for everyone’

We try to encourage our beginning teachers to focus on the ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum and to focus on elements of the curriculum that children can be competent with in order to help build their self-esteem and improve their wellbeing. Not all children will necessarily perform well within the classroom context but often they can shine in physical activities. This may come through their own ability to play sports, but it could also be their aptitude to be a good leader, negotiate, be a team-player or encourage others to improve their games skills. PE needs to be planned and implemented appropriately so that all children gain something from taking part.

Some questions to consider for your own PE curriculum

• How effectively does your school use their funding?
• How confident are you that the children in your school are gaining the full PE curriculum?
• Would you like to see the teaching of PE moved back into teachers’ hands?
• How often do the PE lessons become marginalised within the school week?


Pope, D., 2019. Understanding subject knowledge for primary teaching. London: Sage.

Posted in subjects