The United Learning PE and Health curriculum

Background and context

Over the past 12-18 months, the PE and sport network of United Learning has have been developing a curriculum and assessment framework ready for teaching from September 2016. This follows the lead given in English and maths which began teaching a common curriculum at the start of the 2015/16 academic year.

Where do you start when charged with writing a PE curriculum for schools spread geographically across the country and straddling the state and independent sectors?  A curriculum that needs to be distinctive to United Learning; flexible enough to be adopted and adapted by every secondary school regardless of context; and yet reflecting the essential national priorities for the physical and mental development of young people.

Our thinking had been triggered by Kevin Barton’s thought-provoking input at our national heads of PE and sport conference in 2014.  Kevin shared how the Youth Sport Trust were looking at assessment models following the removal of levels of attainment.  At the time, the PE and sport network were unaware that we would be writing our own curriculum so could not envisage quite how pertinent Kevin’s excellent presentation would become.

Twelve months later and United Learning had moved towards creating a mastery curriculum in English and maths, with a view to expanding to science and foundation subjects at a later date.  Typically, the PE and sport network saw this as an opportunity to get ahead of the curve.  The 2015 heads of PE and sport conference galvanised the network into establishing a Working Group that would be charged with developing a PE curriculum bespoke to United Learning with an accompanying fit-for-purpose assessment framework.

The Working Group comprised representatives from nine schools across both sectors from Barnsley to Bournemouth.  Simultaneously, we engaged a couple of colleagues in the primary phase to ensure that, as we devised the curriculum, it would have a seamless progression from the Foundation stage through to KS4.

At the same time, the Working Group were cognisant of the changing profile and prominence of PE nationally and the pressure on the subject in the light of Ebacc and other challenges facing school leaders.  It was crucial for us to use this once-in-a-career opportunity to emphasise the role of PE and school sport in delivering many of the broader educational outcomes that schools desire for their young people.

And so began six months of intense work in order to get the curriculum launched in May 2016, giving schools enough time to prepare for first teaching from September.

Motivations and aspirations

In developing our curriculum we wanted to reflect the values and aims of United Learning whilst building on the platform that the national curriculum provides. The latter has been retained in our curriculum, but only as the starting point.  We saw gaps that we wanted to fill and aspects that we wanted to extend and develop further.

More crucially, however, was the distinctive structure of United Learning and the cross-sector nature of our schools.  United Learning has an agreed set of six core values which we wanted our curriculum to reflect and support the delivery of.  We wanted to ensure that we did not just pay lip service to these values but held them central to our thinking and planning.

Finally, on a more practical level, schools were all trying in different ways to assess student progress and achievement without using levels.  Following on from Kevin’s input the previous year, we invested in afPE’s ‘Assessment without Levels’ publication and applied the thinking in there to our distinctive aims and ambitions.  In doing so, the level of professional debate was cognitively and philosophically challenging.  The ambition was to produce the most exciting and demanding curriculum that we could, yet keep it simple enough for each school to be able to deliver, within their own context and setting and without any impact on the high standards expected.

In doing so, the three themes emerged that would form the basis for both the curriculum itself and the accompanying assessment framework:

  • Performance
  • Leadership
  • Health

The following model provides a visual summary of the overall outcome of our work, which grew to be called the United Learning PE and Health curriculum:

PE and Health Curriculum

Vision and outcomes

We began by establishing how our vision would deliver on the United Learning core values:

Our vision is that United Learning’s values will be brought to life through high quality physical education, sport and health-promoting physical activity so that every young person is:

  • Ambitious – to excel, to be the best they can be in and through PE and sport;
  • Confident – to participate, perform and lead;
  • Creative – in their decision-making and in finding solutions to increasingly complex challenges;
  • Determined – to persist in overcoming obstacles, to lead healthy lifestyles and to achieve their best;
  • Enthusiastic – about engaging in physical activity* and sport in school, out of school and beyond school life;
  • Respectful – of themselves, all of their peers and all adults involved in their sporting life, whether they be teachers, coaches, officials, medical staff etc.

With a clear vision about how the Group’s core values would underpin our PE and Health curriculum, we drew up four outcomes that we want for all of our young people, whichever institution they attend within the group:

  1. Our KS3 Physical Education (PE) and Health curriculum will bring out ‘the best in everyone’ by developing physically skilful young people who have developed the skills, knowledge, understanding, character and confidence to prepare them for KS4 PE;
  2. Our PE and Health curriculum will enable our young people to forge a positive lifelong relationship with physical activity and sport;
  3. Our PE and Health curriculum will prepare students thoroughly for the rigours of accredited courses in KS4 and beyond through a knowledge and understanding of relevant and appropriate elements of sport science;
  4. Such is our commitment to developing generic leadership/employability skills in young people through PE and sport, our ambition is to enable achievement of our KPIs in Years 7, 8 and 9 to be recognised with a bronze, silver and gold ‘Fit to Lead’ award. Furthermore, students in Year 9 who opt to undertake a further assessment can achieve a ‘Fit to Lead’ qualification.

We knew that we wanted our outcomes to include aspects of character education as that is one of the strands of United Learning’s Framework for Excellence.  We genuinely believed that we could have a greater impact on young people beyond the physical, vital as developing high standards of performance are.  Practical performance is one of the distinctive aspects of our subject and is paramount to everything that we do.  But through the process of improving practical performance PE can do so much more for the holistic education of children. That is what we wanted our curriculum to emphasise through the heavy focus on health and well-being and developing leadership skills in all students in KS3. Although the awards mentioned in outcome 4 are still to be confirmed, they do signal the priority which we will be placing on these generic skills that employers and HE are demanding of our students.

Minimum expectations

In order to deliver on our vision and achieve these aims and outcomes, we wanted to set out some minimum expectations.  Whilst schools naturally retain complete autonomy in deciding which specific activities and sports to include in their unique curriculum, there were some broad expectations which the Working Group felt all pupils in United Learning schools should be entitled to.  In particular, for example, it was felt important that every student learns an adapted/Paralympic sport, but which one/s of these would be at the school’s own discretion.  To this end we set out the following expectations:

All pupils in United Learning schools will be entitled to enjoy the following in their PE, health and school sport experience:

  • Two hours* per week of a challenging core curriculum which has a good balance between breadth and depth of activities, enabling both a wealth of opportunities and deep learning;
  • A core curriculum experience of learning in an unfamiliar environment, whether on water, in challenging outdoor settings, or through activities such as indoor climbing;
  • To participate in adapted/Paralympic sports and activities in curricular or extra-curricular provision;
  • To undertake a recognised award or qualification in physical education, dance, health, leadership or sport;
  • An inclusive and exciting extra-curricular programme that extends and enriches learning and enables them to train and compete with purpose;
  • To represent their school in a sporting (or dance-related) competition or festival.

State and independent

One of the distinctive features of United Learning is the mix of schools in both the state and private sectors.  Devising a curriculum across the two sectors would be a challenge in any subject.  In the introduction to the curriculum we articulated why this cross-sector collaboration was particularly important in PE:

It is often argued that the greatest disparity between the state and independent sectors lies in the realm of PE and school sport. We value the distinctive nature and philosophy of the two sectors, but are encouraged by the shared learning from each other that we have already experienced. Nowhere has this been more evident than through this curriculum and assessment work. The final outcome provides a common, unique United Learning curriculum framework, but one with sufficient flexibility for the traditions and cultures of each school to be retained and celebrated.  The philosophy underpinning this curriculum has been guided by the Group’s aims and ethos; the resulting content has been shaped by the Framework for Excellence; and the process has reflected the group’s mission of collaboration across the sectors.”

From the outset it was essential that both sectors felt ownership of both the process and the eventual outcome.  Directors of Sport from two of our independent schools sat on the Working Group to ensure that the independent school perspective was considered throughout.  In reality, we found that everyone looked at the potential for a cross-sector curriculum through the same lens. Whilst we had many philosophical and intellectual debates about various aspects of curriculum content and assessment terminology, none of those discussions were along state/independent lines.  Our profession can be proud of the amount of common ground we found there to be between the two sectors, notwithstanding the contrasting traditions and contexts.

Crichton Casbon was recruited as our independent expert Chair of Standards. His role included checking that the curriculum and assessment framework would stand up to national scrutiny.  He provided us with excellent challenge and contributed some of his immense experience to the process.  With such a robust and rigorous arbiter of standards, it would be difficult for any school not to sign up to our curriculum in the belief that it would not be stretching enough.

What’s next?

In our next blog we will share more details and content and try to outline what we hope the difference will be for students. We will also be presenting at the Optimus Education conference on PE, Health and School Sport in November.


Of the students I taught, it is those who are now teachers rather than elite athletes of whom I am most proud

There is so much to commend in Ofsted’s recent report ‘Going the extra mile: Excellence in competitive school sport’. On the back of co-editing ‘The A-Z of School Improvement through PE and Sport’ (#AZPE) it was incredibly heartening to read Ofsted’s endorsement of the same message that sport is “a key component in building self-esteem, school ethos and academic excellence”.

Moreover, Ofsted pronounce that “children’s education is poorer if they are deprived of the chance to compete”. And so say all of us! The benefits of appropriate competition in sport, handled well, can be far-reaching across the curriculum (see C is for Competition for Learning and Improvement by James Capper in #AZPE).

What’s more, of the eight recommendations* that Ofsted put forward for maintained schools and academies, I would support, applaud and advocate seven of them.

But here’s the rub: I do not entirely endorse their fourth recommendation and disagree philosophically and whole-heartedly with their two recommendations for the government**.

Here’s why.

Ofsted’s fourth recommendation for maintained schools and academies says that they should “expect all students to participate in regular competitive sport and ensure that there is provision to meet this demand”. My issues with this recommendation are two-fold:

  1. Despite my own passion for sport and all of the health, social and educational benefits that it brings, I fully accept that for some young people it is the antithesis of ‘a good time’. I fully accept that if they choose to seek their competitive outlets through dance, art, debating, chess or any other worthwhile pursuit, then that is their right to do so. Of course I want to see every child who wants to having the opportunity to compete in sport, but expecting every child to undertake “regular competitive sport” is fanciful. We’ll look at the independent-state school argument on this later.
  2. If schools are to “ensure that there is provision to meet this demand”, then this requires a properly funded national strategy.

Ofsted mention “the” national strategy for improving competitive sport in maintained secondary schools and academies. There isn’t one! The House of Commons Education Committee report “School sport following London 2012: No more political football” made the following recommendation:

“School sport is too important to rely on occasional efforts at pump-priming; the Government must commit to a long-term vision for school sport accompanied by long-term funding. We recommend that the Government sets out a plan for the sustained support and development of its school sports policy, to include measures to ensure a cross-departmental vision and effective working across all relevant departments” (p.47)

I am yet to find anyone who knows where any such policy lies, despite asking at two recent conferences involving politicians and leaders in sport and education. Wales, it would seem, is streaking ahead in this regards.

But back to Ofsted.

Despite the excellent advocacy about the benefits of sport for education contained in the report, it could be argued that those arguments are undermined by their two recommendations to government.

For me, the debate about the number of Olympic athletes and medallists coming from the independent sector is a red herring. As a group of schools with state academies and independent schools, one of which (Surbiton High School) proudly contributed to this Ofsted survey, I have learned at least two things so far:

  1. You cannot compare the two. The level of resourcing available to our independent schools is in a different league to that of the majority of our state academies. If there are a few state schools which can compete on a human or financial resource basis, then good luck to them, but for the majority this would be a futile cause. I recognise that Ofsted mention it is as much about attitude as it is resource, but I know of many head teachers who are passionate about sport and who do the best that they possibly can, but without a properly funded national strategy they face competing and equally compelling demands for the same resource. (see Geoff Barton’s piece in the TES here).
  2. You should not compare the two. Each sector has their own challenges and each has elements of practice which are outstanding. Our independent schools and state academies are working in collaboration to enable all young people to have exceptional experiences, no matter which of the institutions they attend. In recent weeks state school students and their independent school peers have:

    a. competed against each other in football;

    b. worked on new rugby partnership involving students from across sectors in one academy linked to a professional club;

    c. taken part in a residential coaching course using the boarding facility of one of our independent schools;

    d. worked in collaboration as a Youth Sport Ambassador Team;

    e. planned a series of competitions between them next year in over eight sports.

Partnership is the key; working together across the sectors to benefit all young people. Within United Learning’s group of schools we do not compare between sectors; instead, we try to celebrate the distinctiveness of each sector and enable each to learn from the other for mutual benefit.

Many of our independent schools are able to recruit top elite athletes into either their PE or coaching cadre or into their academic staff. Many have a fleet of minibuses. Most have a whole year group out on an afternoon for fixtures. Several have boarding facilities so are able to attract elite performers and provide for their education, sporting and welfare needs. It is not an envious ‘pen’ that writes those words but a pragmatic one.

For each of those schools cannot do enough to contribute to the mission of our group to bring about ‘the best in everyone’. Surbiton High School; Caterham School; Bournemouth Collegiate School; Hull Collegiate School; Guildford High School to name but a few – all have contributed a significant amount to the cross-sector sporting ambitions of our group. Whether they also produce more elite athletes than a local academy is irrelevant, as long as both schools are providing high quality PE and school sport that meets the needs of its students. Olympic sports participation is not a measure of accountability for the maintained sector’s PE profession and nor should it be.

My experience of the state sector does not reflect the finding of Ofsted that “many state schools treat competitive sport as an optional extra or fail to deliver it in any meaningful way”. Sure, some don’t, but “many”?

It reminds me of the conversation that happened frequently when I was a head of PE and challenged about the lack of school sport nationally.

Them: “There’s no sport in schools these days.”
Me: “We actually have practices and fixtures every night of the week across several sports, for both sexes and all age groups.”
Them: “Well, you’re obviously the exception.”
Me: “Then against whom are we playing?”

Ofsted do mention the high participation rates in maintained schools and academies, but this comes across as of secondary importance to them. I actually believe that the competitive school sport situation (as evidenced by the School Games numbers) is more optimistic than this report finds, but nonetheless, there is work to be done in some schools to re-install the place of sport in a rounded education.

But schools and the PE profession report to the DfE. Elite and community sport (UK Sport and Sport England) report into DCMS. Ofsted again highlight one of the issues in that they are linking elite sport with education. I am not convinced that many PE teachers out there measure their success by the number of elite athletes they produce. They have an education remit, not an elite sport one. So the statement I made at the outset remains, I am more proud of any youngster that went on to teach because of their experiences in our department than any youngster who, through their hard work and the support of their family, club and national governing body went on to sporting success.

So if Ofsted want to see an improvement in competitive school sport in the maintained sector, here are a couple of our recommendations to them:

  1. Give school PE and school sport provision a higher priority during section 5 inspections and reporting;
  2. In doing so, focus on curriculum outcomes, participation rates and competitive sport in equal measure;
  3. Strengthen the focus of inspections on the links between PE, school sport, health and school improvement – this would be a much better use of time than needlessly investigating alumni success;
  4. Where you have influence, encourage the government to create a long-term fully-funded cross-party, cross-department strategy as per the Education Committee’s report.

Those of us in the profession have always gone the extra mile to enthuse the next generation of active citizens, to inspire the next cohort of PE teachers and, perhaps, to support the next cadre of elite athletes. With their remit to monitor standards of education it would be a pity if Ofsted solely focused on the latter.


*Ofsted’s recommendations to maintained schools and academies (p.9):

  1. recognise the role competitive sport plays in building the whole person, enriching the student experience and improving the school ethos
  2. embed competitive sport firmly in the school culture and ethos and make it a central part of school life, involving staff, parents, students and governors, and taking every opportunity to celebrate and reward success
  3. ensure that there is a well-structured and supported competitive sports programme that provides opportunities for all students to participate in competitive sport and stretches the most able
  4. expect all students to participate in regular competitive sport and ensure that there is provision to meet this demand
  5. ensure that the most able students have access to the range of high quality support and facilities needed to develop their skills and fitness
  6. foster meaningful sporting links with local and professional sports clubs to encourage more students to regularly compete in sport in their own time
  7. develop the partnerships needed to build sporting pathways – from primary school to secondary school and with the local and professional sports clubs
  8. improve the quality of competitive school sports programmes by learning from the best about how to produce high quality sports programmes:
  • offer a range of sports but prioritise a few to excel at
  • provide enough time in both the PE curriculum and the sports enrichment programme to attain high standards in these sports
  • utilise expert coaches to work alongside teachers to coach more able students and school teams, holding them to account for the success achieved by students.

** Ofsted’s recommendations to the government (p.9):

  1. ensure that the national strategy for improving competitive sport in maintained secondary schools and academies has a specific focus on improving the proportions of athletes reaching elite levels from state schools
  2. monitor and report on the proportions of elite athletes from different educational backgrounds to determine whether the national strategy is having an impact; in particular, it should report on these proportions prior to the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic games to raise public awareness of this issue.

Fit to Teach

Guest blog by Jenny  Pacey and Wayne Gordon, United Learning Sports Ambassadors.

Jenny Pacey and Wayne Gordon

Jenny Pacey and Wayne Gordon

Teaching is a demanding profession, both physically and mentally. Sustaining a high level of teaching requires a great deal of energy.

The purpose of this blog is to capture this moment at the start of term, when energy levels and enthusiasm are probably at their highest, and to highlight some core strategies that can help you to retain those energy levels. Maintaining a successful health-promoting exercise program uses many of the skills and strategies that teachers are familiar with: setting goals; mastering the basics; planning and keeping to a realistic routine.

1. In it for the long run

A lot of people work out with only a short-term goal in mind, like a summer holiday or looking good for a specific event. Your health is with you for the rest of your life so think of adopting and sustaining an exercise/nutrition programme as a life-choice rather than just a short-term intervention.

For example, instead of trying to lose Xkg in 4 weeks, aim to maintain a healthy weight for your height. This will ensure that energy levels and motivation remain high. The NHS healthy weight calculator can help you achieve this.

Try changing from goal-orientated outcomes (i.e. trying to bench press Xkg) to process-orientated outcomes: becoming the person who never misses a workout; the person who is never put off running by the rain; and who always makes it out of bed if you have planned an early morning workout. Make exercise as much a priority as going to work.

‘Exercise should be a habit not a chore.’

Short-term SMART goals and new challenges can be used to keep you motivated and inspired. These interim results can be important staging posts on the road to your longer-term objectives. When you commit to being consistent over the long term, you end up seeing remarkable results in the short term.

2. Set a schedule

In teaching the job is never finished. It is always possible to do more. Teachers are incredibly organized and excellent planners – otherwise the job would swamp them completely. It often feels like that anyway! Exercise results are achieved through CONSITANCY & VARIETY. Most people never train consistently because they are always wondering when they are going to train next. Do you ask your self if you will be motivated to workout when you get home from work or if you will have enough free time to exercise today?

The problem is most people train when they feel motivated or inspired. Instead, stop treating exercise as something to do when it’s convenient, start setting a weekly schedule to follow.

We workout for an hour a day 5 days a week and we schedule it into our busy diaries as a priority along side work, social and other commitments. The rigid nature of a school day limits flexibility – exercise has to take place either at the start or end of the day. And with the relentless nature of the work involved in teaching, it is easy to neglect your exercise, but writing down and committing to a schedule really makes a difference. There will always be occasional emergencies that prevent you from exercising but make it an essential part of your life. The problem is that most people miss one workout and before they know it, they haven’t been to the gym in four weeks.

When you have a schedule for your training, you have a way of pulling yourself back on track as quickly as possible. Let your schedule govern your actions, not your level of motivation.

3. Great results = Great exercises.

So many people waste time in the gym because they bounce around without any real goal, doing a little bit of this machine and a little bit of the treadmill. However, there is a simple rule that will always guide you toward the best exercises: the more an exercise makes you move, the bigger the benefits it will deliver; exercises that force your body to move the most (and the quickest) are often the best for calorie burn and muscle toning.

Include some of these all over body exercises in your weekly workouts:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Sprints
  • Bench press
  • Clean and jerk
  • Push ups
  • Pull ups
  • Boxing
  • Swimming
  • Up hill power walking
  • Wall climbing etc.

Try incorporating exercises into your daily routine: perform ten squats when waiting for the kettle to boil; park as far away as you can at the supermarket so you have to carry those heavy bags further; power walk to the bus stop.

4. What You Should Do – Now!

Here are your action steps to a healthier fitter you. Take the initiative now whilst your enthusiasm and energy levels are high. Don’t wait for the New Year!

  • Set a weekly/ monthly schedule. When and where are you going to train?
  • Set SMART goals
  • Get a notebook or use your diary to record your training.
  • Focus on the best exercises that make you move a lot.
  • If you’re in the gym start with a weight that is very light and train for volume before intensity.
  • Slowly increase the weight/mileage or intensity each week.
  • Mix your up training, variety = results and offsets boredom.
  • If you only manage to make two changes focus on the WW: walk more and drink more water
  • Try our home workout DVD, 15 minute fast fitness!


So there are some top tips from experts who know from experience what makes the difference between people sustaining their health-promoting exercise plans and those who look back with regret.

Teaching requires incredible stamina. Exercise and nutrition are key ingredients for sustaining energy levels through the academic year. Adopt some of the tips outlined here and hopefully you will feel the difference.

Jenny and Wayne are former international athletes and Gladiators. Now working as Pace and Go, they are part of our Sport Ambassador team at United Learning. Below are some of their essential training guidelines that everybody can use to help their exercise regimes, regardless of prior knowledge and fitness levels. They have put together these simple and helpful tips so that you will see and feel the benefits both in your personal and professional lives.

Emma Wiggs – The Value of Determination

Emma Wiggs is a former PE teacher. Despite her disability, she was determined to teach PE in a mainstream school. Yet within a year of taking up her post it became clear that she was in with a great chance of selection for London 2012. Decision time.

The easy option was to remain in gainful employment doing a job she loved in a school where she was loved by students and colleagues alike. Tougher, though, to forgo that income; to leave that job; and, partially at least, turn your back on those students and staff and commit to possibility of representing Team GB at the Paralympic Games in sitting volleyball. Teacher. Athlete. Decision time.

Emma determined to be a Paralympian. But if she thought that was a tough decision, forward wind to the days post-London. After disappointing results and without funding through to Rio, sitting volleyball held no viable future for Emma. Return to teaching? Remain as an athlete? Decision time.

As Emma explains:

“8 months after the end of the most incredible experience of my life…London 2012…I find myself embarking on a new adventure. For many reasons it was time for a change after the Paralympics in London and I decided to focus my efforts on seeing if my talents were ‘transferrable’ to a different elite Paralympic Sport…..well after many months and many many tough decisions it was GB ParaCanoe squad selection that suddenly put me on a different course!”

And it is on that course where we now find Emma. Such is her determination to succeed that, despite not being on a fully-funded programme she flies from her base in Scotland to Nottingham on a Monday night. Three days of hard training on the water and in the gym follow before the return flight to Glasgow on Thursday night. That is all before further travel to compete at weekends.

“The endless feeling of living out of a bag is one you have to get used to as an athlete but it was worth it as by May I found myself not only in the GB squad but selected as the TA (Trunk and Arms) competitor for the European Championships in Portugal!”

So not just trying out a second sport, then, but excelling in it. Simultaneously trying to earn enough money to fund her travel costs (Sky Sports Living for Sport athlete mentor and United Learning Sport Ambassador), Emma’s determination to be the best she can be led to selection to the Europeans. But with that, came the issue of classification.

“As a Paralympic athlete you have to go through a process of “classification” before competing. This is basically a pretty horrendous medical where you get prodded and poked and have to ‘perform’ certain tasks or movements. It is not only quite a stressful and time consuming process but one that goes against the grain of any athlete’s mentality that I have ever met. We spend hours every day trying to show and get better at what we can do and this is all about exposing what you can’t do. “

In essence, the classification serves to ensure that Emma cannot use her legs to accelerate the boat. Every athlete should feel confident that they are competing against rivals with the same movement capabilities as their own. Yet to get to that point, each athlete with a disability has to undergo this “horrendous” classification process. And not just once. For Emma, this may be the first of several such experiences before, as hoped, she sits in her kayak at the start line on a lake in Rio. Does she have a chance?

When we recruited our 6 Sport Ambassadors for 2013/14, we aligned each of them to one of United Learning’s core values. Unsurprisingly we aligned Emma to ‘determination’. Here’s how she got on at those European Championship s in Portugal last week:

“There is a lot to think about when you are preparing for a race, the physical side of resting, the mental side of being in the right frame of mind to confidently control your performance and the nutritional aspects of hydrating and fuelling your body to be perfectly ready on that start line.

As a new athlete to kayaking I had to learn quickly. It helped being surrounded by some incredible teammates who knew what to do but ultimately it would be me sat on that start line on my own ready to race.

Everything went to plan on race day and I got on the water feeling very good. The sun was out and the crowds were cheering as they announced the start line. You try not to focus on anything but your race but your heart does beat faster when they say “lane 4, Emma Wiggs, Great Britain”. The actual race is a bit of a blur, it went extremely well and I crossed the line in 1st place…”Emma Wiggs European Champion”

I guess that makes all the difficult decisions, commuting and hours of training worthwhile! Life is full of exciting opportunities and I’m very glad I found the courage to grasp this one. The journey continues…all being well to the World Championships in August!”

A qualified teacher. A classified Paralympian. A determined young lady indeed!

An Uncommon Experience

Last Tuesday morning at Portcullis House. I’d been called to give evidence in front of the Education Select Committee as part of their School Sport inquiry. There were nerves. I was anxious to contribute effectively to the Inquiry and to present the evidence from United Learning academies and independent schools effectively. Anxious, too, because being invited to appear in front of the Select Committee is an honour, but one which, in perception at least, was to take me far out of my comfort zone. With the House of Commons opposite, this was indeed to be an uncommon experience.

The purpose of the Select Committee enquiry is to look at:

  • The impact and effectiveness of current Government policy and expenditure on increasing sports in schools;
  • The scope, appropriateness and likelihood of success of the Government’s plans for a school sports legacy from London 2012;
  • The impact so far of London 2012 on the take-up of competitive sports in schools;
  • What further measures should be taken to ensure a sustainable and effective legacy in school sports following London 2012.

United Learning had been called to give oral evidence because we had already supplied written evidence to the Committee. In particular, we felt that we were of interest to the Committee for three reasons:

  • We could represent a range of schools across the country;
  • Our schools include both state academies and independent schools;
  • In our written evidence we had referred to the United Learning Panel which had surveyed all students in the Group about their attitudes to sport following the Olympics.

So my role was to tell the Committee about some of the successes our schools are enjoying in physical education. Armed with a plethora of examples of outstanding work, I gave the Committee an insight into the sporting opportunities available to our pupils across the country.

The first question that directly referred to United Learning was in relation to the findings of the United Learning Panel which we had mentioned in our written submission. The key, relevant findings that we had submitted were:

  • Six in ten students said watching the Olympics had encouraged them to participate in more sport and 69% said they were going to try new sports because of London 2012;
  • 86% said that London 2012 convinced them that anything is possible if they work hard enough;
  • 83% said London 2012 made them rethink their attitudes towards disability (50% a great deal, 33% a little);
  • 62% of students said that London 2012 made them want to volunteer.

The Committee’s question was straightforward: “have the 60% of students who said they wanted to participate in more sport actually done so?”. In responding, I alluded to what is called the “intention-behaviour gap”. As psychologist Julia Allan explains:

“Behavioural intentions do not reliably lead to changes in behaviour (Sheeran, 2002; Conner & Armitage, 1998; Godin & Kok, 1996), and the substantial ‘intention-behaviour gap’ remains a major focus of research in health psychology.”

In exercise, diet, health choices and many other aspects of life, research tells us that it is one thing to have a good intention; quite another to translate that into behaviours. That is one of the reasons why United Learning are trialling the role that I currently hold: to support schools in enabling their young people to turn these sporting intentions into sporting behaviours. Quick fixes would be relatively easy to implement. In my visits to our schools, it is evident that they all have a deep-seated determination to create enduring behaviour changes in their students. Moreover, they are on a relentless drive to achieve this ambition. In doing so, they are both reflecting inwardly on their own practice and looking outwardly to learn from others in the Group. As Estelle Morris wrote earlier this year:

“Interdependence is as important as independence”

It is in relation to this that the second question pertaining to our evidence came through:

“Are there any lessons about competitive sport that independent schools in United Learning can teach academies? And vice versa?”

In his address at the Paralympic Opening Ceremony, Stephen Hawking explained that the Paralympic Games were about transforming our perceptions of the world. He said:

“We are all different…but we share the same human spirit.”

It may be a stretch to bring this analogy to the difference between state and independent schools in relation to school sport, but a couple of aspects ring true. Firstly, there is the issue of perceptions. Secondly, what we have in common is far greater than that which distinguishes us.

For the purposes of the inquiry, I was able present some headline findings from my visits to schools in my first six weeks in post. That is, the appetite for working collaboratively across state and independent schools is huge. This would support the case put forward by Head Teacher John Tomsett in his recent excellent blog “This much I know about…bridging the independent-state school divide” in which he remarks:

“Together we provide our students and staff with great experiences – educationally, culturally and socially – which break down any divisions that might exist between us.”

It was from an earlier blog from John that I found the “Tipping Point Leadership” article by Kim and Wauborgne. In it they present the sport-related model of four hurdles needing to be overcome in order to bring about “rapid, dramatic, and lasting change with limited resources”. From my experience so far discussing PE and school sport with the state and independent schools in United Learning , there is no cognitive hurdle to break through, nor a motivational hurdle to jump. Hopefully, this Select Committee (and its cross-party make-up) will go some way to knocking over the political hurdles that frustrate the profession so much, especially when they feel more like high jump bars rather than hurdles. Which would leave only the resource hurdle remaining.

Although I am still doing my school visits, the emerging, and unsurprising distinction between state schools and independent schools lies in the realm of resource. This is especially stark in relation to school sport. Yes, there are cultural differences. Yes, where students board especially, there are advantages in terms of the time available to develop sporting potential further. And yes, in some but by no means all situations, there are better facilities within which to work on that potential. Although further evidence needs to be gathered before being submitted to the Committee, for now the most striking advantage that our independent schools have over our academies lies in the amount of human resource they can call upon to deliver school sport.

Schools within both sectors in our Group have some exceptional PE teachers and outstanding subject leaders. The curriculum PE experience of young people in both sectors is good or outstanding in the majority of cases and we are determined that it should be outstanding regardless of which institution within the Group a young person attends. But when it comes to having a cadre of colleagues who are willing, or expected to contribute to school sport, there is a chasm.

Where some academies are struggling to appoint a teacher in a core subject, some of our independent schools are able to recruit teachers who bring not only their subject expertise, but an additional strength in sport (as just one example). One independent school has several other curriculum subject teachers as “heads of” specific sports, let alone “helping out”. Those colleagues who helped us out when I was a Head of PE in a state school were gold dust and we were incredibly grateful to them. But we were wholly reliant on their goodwill. There certainly was no expectation.

In terms of the committee’s specific question regarding what lessons can be learned, there is certainly a debate to be had about the amount of time given to activities within the curriculum. As Ofsted found in their recent report:

“In a small minority of secondary schools, including some sports colleges where PE was outstanding, the balance between maximising participation and generating elite performance had been achieved and sport was played to a very high standard.”

One of our ambitions is to support all United Learning schools in getting that balance right. It is such a difficult balance to achieve, one laced with philosophical conundrums and logistical quandaries…notwithstanding the additional hurdle of resource. I’m sure the breadth/depth debate is one that will be had over time as each school grapples with the issue within its own unique context. But it might well be worth reminding the Education Select Committee of what Maria Miller promised to the School Games Conference in October 2012:

“I’ll leave no stone unturned in looking at new ways to support schools with the firepower they need to strengthen both PE and sport.”

It could be argued that it is not firepower so much as ‘man’power that is needed.

In this particular aspect of my role, I aspire to what Laura McInerney outlines in her take on instruction rounds as used in the medical profession (from ‘Instructional rounds in Action’ by John E. Roberts):

  • Describe what I see
  • Analyse patterns
  • Predict the impact
  • Recommend what should happen next

This current phase is all about listening, learning and questioning. The independent schools that I have spent time with thus far could not have been more helpful, open-minded or actively engaged with their local clubs and communities. My perceptions are already changing. For as with the Select Committee experience itself, I am entering a world hitherto unfamiliar to me. It is, indeed, an uncommon experience where the learning curve is as steep as the mountains currently being devoured in the Giro d’Italia. The challenge is significant, but when we have in common committed, skilful professionals who share the greater mission of bringing out ‘the best in everyone’ through PE and sport, there is every chance that we can deliever.

Collectively. Collaboratively. Certainly.