Girls are increasingly disengaged in PE. In order to combat this, Gerald Greggs explores an alternative curriculum for girls’ physical education

In the majority of secondary schools the teaching of PE looks very similar, with something of ‘an implicit agreement as to what should be included in the curriculum and how it should be taught, with the focus being largely on the sporting model’ (Capel, 2007: 493). Such a model appears to focus mainly on skill acquisition within a traditional curriculum, which places an unbalanced emphasis upon team games and is taught using a limited range of largely didactic pedagogic approaches (Green, 1998; Penney and Evans, 1999; Metzler, 2000; Ofsted, 2002; Kirk and Kinchin, 2003).

With it becoming increasingly apparent that PE taught in schools fails to prepare today’s young people to engage in the varied forms of physical activity available outside school, what results is the alienation of a significant number of young people (Kirk and Macdonald, 1998). At a time of when obesity rates are rising and populations are becoming increasingly sedentary (Green, 2002; Fairclough and Stratton, 1997), low participation in a physically active, healthy lifestyle is a major concern and continues to be most prevalent among girls.

Considerable literature exists that outlines girls’ disengagement from PE (Bain, 1995; Hastie, 1998; Nilges, 1998; Satina et al, 1998; Scraton, 1992). Although girls themselves have often been identified as the problem (Flintoff and Scraton, 2001; Rich, 2003, 2004, Wright, 1996), within PE research there has been a tangible shift which indicates that the key problem lies within the curriculum and the pedagogic content (Ennis, et al, 1997; Flintoff and Scraton,2006; Sandford and Rich, 2006).

In order to investigate this problem, studies have begun to research the development of alternative curricula designs in a bid to facilitate girls’ re-engagement with PE (Ennis, 1999; Hastie, 1998; Kinchin and O’Sullivan, 1999; Kirk et al, 2000; Oliver and Latik, 2001). This study seeks to add to this growing literature by evaluating the implementation of an alternative PE curriculum in an English secondary school.

Methodology

In the spring term in a secondary school in Warwickshire, a group of 25 Year 9 girls who had been identified by staff as being less engaged with PE were taught an alternative range of activities, including cheerleading, aerobics, skipping, tag rugby and ultimate frisbee in place of their usual and more traditional PE curriculum. The internal aim of this study was to evaluate how the introduction of this ‘pilot’ programme was received in order that a more effective curriculum might be devised in light of the new National Curriculum for Physical Education launched in September 2008 (QCA, 2008). Qualitative data was collected from the girls in the form of anonymously returned self-completion questionnaires, within which pupils were asked a range of closed and open questions in order to compare their contrasting curricula. Following a 100% response, findings were collated and were reported as both descriptive statistics and as a series of themed statements.

Following the delivery of the alternative curriculum, six staff within the department were interviewed in order that their reflections might triangulate with the pupils’ statements. The interview schedule was organised around the two central themes of curriculum content and choice that emerged from the pupils’ questionnaires and were semi-structured in nature. This technique provided a framework that allowed comparability across the interviews conducted, but at the same time allowed sufficient latitude so that clarification could be gained and further emergent themes could be explored (Bryman, 2004). All interviews were recorded and transcribed and were anonymised to ensure confidentiality. The transcriptions were coded and analysed and pertinent phrases were selected. Relevant extracts from both the questionnaires and the interviews can be found in the discussion. The participation of all individuals who took part in this study was voluntary with all participants being made fully aware of the nature of the study. They were also informed that they were free to withdraw at any time. Access to data was confined to the researchers and was managed in accordance with the Data Protection Act, 1998.

Analysis

From the data, two key themes emerged, namely curriculum content and choice. For clarity of discussion each of these will be addressed in turn.

Curriculum content
Oliver and Latik (2001) indicate that changing the curriculum content and offering an alternative programme of activities directly and indirectly offers a challenge and resistance to dominant sporting forms. Within the programme, the alternative was manifest in two different ways. First, that the curriculum on offer was comprised of different activities than usual, but, second, within the usual structures that pupils were familiar, eg, games, the games on offer such as ultimate frisbee were indeed ‘alternative’ to more dominant sporting forms (Thornton, 2004).

Overall, 84 per cent of the pupils reported that they enjoyed their PE lessons more during the alternative activities unit of work. A representative comment suggested this was because:

‘The activities were different and more exciting and made me actually want to do games.’ (Pupil questionnaire.)

‘We should have more non-traditional activities because it will motivate us to learn.’ (Pupil questionnaire.)

Overall, the staff were open and encouraged by the pilot programme on offer, but at the same time were mindful of the novelty value that such activities can have:

‘I think this highlights that we should try to make the curriculum we offer as varied as possible.’ (Staff interview.)

‘I question whether if these activities were taught regularly as part of the curriculum they would lose the novel fun effect.’ (Staff interview.)

An interesting finding from the pupil questionnaires is that some pupils indicated that they preferred the traditional curriculum, for reasons that they felt less challenged by the alternative activities:

‘To be honest, I think some of these activities are just an excuse to cop out – you don’t have to work at it.’ (Pupil questionnaire.)

What was apparent from the staff was how pleasing such comments appeared to be:

‘It was encouraging to see that many pupils did miss the competitive, more traditional team sports.’ (Staff interview.)

Such comments exemplify an underlying conservatism found throughout professionals involved within PE (Capel, 2007), whereby individuals appear receptive to new initiatives and ideas but in reality adapt, modify and recreate provision for PE to match their existing beliefs, in effect allowing teachers to continue to teach what they have always taught and how they have always taught it (Evans and Penney 1992; Penney and Evans, 1997).

Choice
Kinchin and O’Sullivan (1999), Ennis (1999) and Hastie (1998) all indicate that positive responses to activities can be gained from pupils if they are allowed to make what they perceive to be more meaningful choices. Within this study, a raised level of motivation was certainly apparent throughout the pupil responses (evident in earlier statements), with the ability to have choice being central to this:

‘I think we should get a choice in what we do but we should keep what we want from the original curriculum.’ (Pupil questionnaire.)

‘I think we should have a teacher for each activity and you can choose which one you want to do. However, you can only do the activity three times before you move on. I have really enjoyed the variety.’ (Pupil questionnaire.)

Staff too acknowledged that providing this choice for pupils had significant advantages:

‘I think that these alternative activities suit certain groups of pupils.’ (Staff interview.)

‘This could have a great effect on post-16 drop out, if pupils who tend to like traditional activities could enjoy and become involved in activities such as aerobics, skipping and cheerleading through PE lessons this would surely increase the chance of them remaining active upon leaving school.’ (Staff interview.)

Refreshingly, staff did not mention that there would be barriers to providing these activities such as financial cost, staffing or lack of facilities typical of more recent studies (Ennis, 1999; Hastie, 1998; Kinchin and O’Sullivan, 1999; Kirk et al, 2000; Oliver and Latik, 2001).

Conclusions

As girls’ disengagement from PE continues, at a time when obesity rates are rising and populations are becoming increasingly sedentary, it is imperative that curricula designs are examined in order to prepare today’s young people for the varied forms of physical activity available outside school and towards lifelong participation. An ‘alternative’ curriculum including cheerleading, aerobics, skipping, tag rugby and ultimate frisbee, as piloted in this study, indicates that offering a diverse range of activities appeals to the widest possible number of pupils. In addition, giving pupils a degree of choice can have an empowering effect upon engagement. There are potential barriers to facilitating such provision, not least an adherence to traditional sporting forms, so ultimately it must fall to a teacher’s own desire to consider curriculum innovation that will affect change and re-engage disaffected pupils.

Gerald Griggs is a senior lecturer in PE and sports studies at the University of Wolverhampton

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