Does two hours of PE a week really mean enough physical activity for children? Samantha Wilkinson discusses her research and findings

Nearly every day you can read or watch an article in the news with regards to healthy living or obesity issues. On the news I watched a piece on how inactive adults have become – and that an adult is dying every day as a result of inactivity. If adults are inactive, what role model do they provide to their children? Very recently there was a newspaper article discussing how scientists have created a new formula for newborn babies that has a specific hormone in that could ‘end obesity’. Surely we can educate our children to be healthy and not have to give them special hormones in the hope that it will keep them healthy?

The fact, however, is that obesity cost nearly £3 million at the turn of the century and is estimated to rise to over £3.6 million by 2010. Obesity raises the risk of diabetes by 80 per cent and in a study in America of causes of deaths, 24 per cent were attributed to obesity and 23 per cent to inactivity, in comparison to 33 per cent smoking and 23 per cent cholesterol. Children especially are at risk, born into an age of technology that creates an inactive lifestyle. Overweight children are said to have arteries the same as a middle-aged smoker. To try and halt this obesity ‘epidemic’ the government has put into place both healthy food bills and improved sporting education bills. One of their policies is the promotion of two hours of high quality PE and sport in school physical education lessons. But with classes often catering for 30 pupils or more, can all pupils achieve this high quality and therefore be ‘active’ for two hours a week, or are they merely bystanders?

Levels of activity

The major issue with regards to children at the moment is their level of inactivity and unhealthy lives. Physical activity is a global term that has been defined as all movement that is produced by the contraction of skeletal muscle and that substantially increases energy expenditure. There are huge concerns that the children of today are eating unhealthy foods and being less active in their daily lives than previous generations.

The new government plans to improve health and fitness of pupils have been warmly welcomed. The main push has been the Healthy Schools Program, which has recently meant the banning of certain fatty foods in canteens and a general move towards making children healthier and fitter. The health secretary back in 2004, John Reid, stated that “this valuable initiative will encourage children to live healthy and active lives at school and at home”. The push to eat more healthily has hit home since Jamie Oliver’s television documentary – Jamie’s School Dinners – in 2006, but pupils eating healthily at school will not halt the year-on-year increase in obesity as children only receive an average of 18 per cent of their weekly intake of food from school. You can take away the soft drink and you only stop children until they leave the premises. Teach them the value of good diet, exercise and lifestyle and they can make the right choices for themselves. The government has a target to halt the obesity increase of 11-year-olds by 2010. If this is to be achieved, then schools and teachers of physical education have a major part to play. Pupils need to be healthy and fit and the current obesity epidemic points to a generation that is lacking in both.


One major factor that seems to have contributed to this obesity epidemic is the increased use of technology, which means that activity levels are far lower than in previous decades. Most children now have access to at least a second television and in fact many have one in their room. Computers are now smaller and more popular, such as the PSP and Gameboy Advance, and children like to entertain themselves with these rather than going outside and taking part in exercise through active play or sports. The use of computers, televisions, game consoles and cars have all meant that people are far less active when completing their daily tasks. Children need to be educated about healthy lives and school is their main source of learning. Therefore if pupils are made more active when at school this may help them become active into their adulthood.

Two hours of PE

Health experts have stated that the recommended activity for a person is at least 30 minutes of moderate activity three times a week. A moderate amount of physical activity is roughly equivalent to physical activity that uses approximately 150 calories of energy per day. The Department of Health (2004) stated that they will have delivered their aims if they have managed to increase the number who engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity level sport at least three times a week by three per cent. The government initiative that schools must provide two hours of high quality PE and sport states that “all children, whatever their circumstance or abilities, should be able to participate in and enjoy physical education and sport”. The government says that the characteristics of a high quality PE lesson include pupils enjoying PE and school and community sport, having stamina, suppleness and strength to keep going and not sitting on the sidelines avoiding participation. However, it has been commented, since the implementation of the National Curriculum, that the time for PE has been eroded to allow increased focus on numeracy and literacy. I have recently fallen victim to this with our Key Stage 4 curriculum time cut from two hours to one hour due to the need for increased science hours. Despite this, the daily dose of physical activity for children is predominantly through PE lessons. If we can make pupils as active as possible in their school lessons, while enjoying themselves, then they are at least on the road to the government guidelines.

The heading ‘PE’ encompasses a huge variety of activities, from team games, to dance, to outdoor and adventurous activities. Not only do we as PE teachers have to teach pupils the fundamentals of
at least four areas of sport at Key Stage 3 to enable them to participate at a good level and therefore enjoy the activities but we are also required to help them develop into independent learners. This involves pupils learning through trial and error, evaluating their own and others performances and planning their warm-ups and skills sessions themselves. With all this to be learned and taught in the two hours a week the government have said they want, in how much actual activity does each child take part?

An extreme example of an hour’s lesson with little activity for individual children is trampolining. If a teacher has four trampolines out – and many staff have only two – with a class of 30, there are either seven or eight pupils at each trampoline. If it takes 10 minutes to get changed each lesson and 10 minutes getting out and putting away the trampoline, there is just 40 minutes of lesson left for the activity. This means each child getting a maximum of five minutes on the trampoline without taking into account the teacher stopping to demonstrate or explain tasks. The rest of the lesson is spent spotting or evaluating other pupils. It is a great activity for the evaluating aspect of the curriculum but it is not a high quality active lesson for any of the pupils.

Another extreme example is throwing in athletics. Again, with a class of 30 split into pairs for their throwing, they would take maybe 10 to 15 throws in the lesson and walk out to retrieve their equipment. Another excellent opportunity for partner evaluation and analysis in general but how much actual activity that increases heart rate is taking place?

There are obviously activities not in the same extreme as the two mentioned, such as netball, where you could have a class of 30 involved in two matches with two umpires. All pupils are involved and active, although activity levels vary depending upon their position. Compare this to hockey or football, when if you are lucky enough to have a synthetic pitch then 22 of the 30 can play in the match leaving eight subs/umpires. This means just 29 minutes of activity for each child as a result of them having to sit out for 11 minutes of the lesson as a sub due to the high class numbers. Obviously you would have small game situations where all pupils are actively involved throughout the game to contrast this point.

Time for everything?

I agree that pupils need to learn to evaluate situations, team build, learn through trial and error and so on but should it be at the expense of their health? Physical education and school sport are very different to each other. Physical education is where pupils are educated about sports and healthy lifestyles but school sport is participating in competitive situations and learning how to be successful and how to cope with failure.

Class size impact

There has been some research into activity levels in PE lessons although not a great deal yet. Sproule (2001) researched the impact upon pupils’ heart rates in a games lesson when taught in a small and a large class setting. His results showed that the smaller class spent significantly longer periods of time – 38 per cent of the lesson compared with 21 per cent of the lesson – in the required heart rate zone in National Curriculum games lessons. Therefore the pupils in the larger classes were not as active and this showed that the class size was having a detrimental effect upon their fitness.

I carried out my own research into girls’ activity levels in games lessons. This was due to my personal experience of teaching half of Year 9 in classes of 35 and the other half in classes of 12 due to the setting system at the time throughout the school. The class of 35, who were the top setted pupils and therefore supposedly the ‘more able’ half of the year, were very disaffected with PE and did not progress well throughout the key stage. The class of 12 were far more enthusiastic in lessons and progressed better at all stages in Key Stage 3. I wanted to find out if this was just their attitudes or if the class size actually was the prime reason, even if only initially.

I did not find an actual  statutory class size restriction for PE in England. There are recommendations for the class sizes for practical lessons, although these are only guidelines. No one in England has actually stated a maximum. A Teaching Union of Ireland (TUI) directive on class sizes in physical education  recommends 24, with a maximum of 30. A practical subject includes science, technology and design, home economics, art and design, PE and music.

The Northern Ireland government have taken a step further in guidelines by stating that the statutory rule for the number of pupils under instruction by one teacher should not exceed 20 for a class in a practical subject.

Research project

My research was carried out to find out whether class sizes affect girls’ activity levels within their Key Stage 3 PE games lessons and which parts of the lesson – warm-up, skills or game – are affected the most, if at all. If the heart rates were negatively affected by larger class sizes then surely the government and schools need to take this on board and decrease class sizes in PE lessons and give pupils the best opportunity to work their heart to an appropriate level.

Four sample groups in Year 8 were used while taking part in a basketball lesson in a school gymnasium. Thirty-six pupils participated in the research. The pupils’ heart rates were measured using polar heart monitor watches that measured their heart rate during the lesson. Every five minutes their heart rate was recorded and an average calculated from these figures. Between eight and 10 pupils in each class were used for data and the class sizes ranged from eight to 39.

Each pupil had their heart rate recorded in the basketball lesson when in a small and large class setting with a similar lesson taught on both occasions, i.e. warm-up, skills, game session.

The research found that 77 per cent of pupils’ heart rates increased when in a smaller class setting and also that the heart rate during the warm-up and games sections of the lesson decreased the most when in a large class setting. Seventy-seven per cent of pupils during the warm up and 87 per cent of pupils during the game section had a decrease in their heart rate when put in a large class setting.

A very interesting finding was that only 59 per cent of pupils in the larger class settings obtained an average recommended heart rate as stated by the British Heart Foundation, compared to 87 per cent in the smaller classes.

What can PE teachers do?

Although my research was isolated to my school and therefore on a small-scale basis, it has shown that as physical education teachers we have a major influence on pupils’ activity levels in school. The government wants pupils to have two hours of high quality physical education – this requires them to gain a good level of fitness to be able to carry out proficiently the tasks set. If pupils can be made as active as possible in structured activities then they have been given the best opportunity to lead active lifestyles.

In the context of large class sizes and children’s activity levels, this may be one factor that schools and policy makers should consider. However, to get pupils active for at least 30 minutes a day and to educate them in PE, we really need to increase PE in schools and not allow it to be the first to be decreased in time when other subjects are to be fitted in. Maybe the curriculum could be split to include PE on the one hand and exercise on the other, such as aerobics, fitness, team game but match play etc. This would enable pupils to learn but also get fit through the higher intensity activity. I would like to see schools have three hours of PE at Key Stages 3 and 4 – if the school is seen to promote PE as a high priority then it can only help improve our pupils’ perceptions of sport.

Sam Wilkinson is curriculum leader of PE at Kings Wood School in Romford