For teachers at primary schools, the requirement of PE hours taught per week has risen from two to five. Crispin Andrews talks to primary headteachers about how they are coping with this change

No sooner are headteachers providing two hours of high-quality physical activity for all their children and the government ask for more.

Facilitating the delivery of high-quality PE and a wide range of out-of-school-hours activities to cater for the needs of those youngsters who aren’t particularly bothered by netball and swimming, but might like a bit of street dance, quad biking or kabaddi, is not enough. Now there must be five hours – two on the curriculum and three more out of school hours and in the community – every week.

And it has to be high quality too: there’s no chance of getting the whole of Year 5 in the hall once a week and playing that game where everyone sits round the side screaming while two children at a time kick the hell out of a sponge ball in the vague direction of an unguarded bench. Even little Veronica Primm and Billy ‘Porker’ Bacon have to do their five hours. On top of that the local school sport partnership have employed a school sport coordinator responsible for developing opportunities for children with SEN; so no more sending young James in the wheelchair off to the library when every one else goes out on to the field. You might even have to do outdoor PE when it’s cold and wet, clean all the junk out of the hall and dust off your health and safety policies to see if a few more coaches can come in after school. What is the world coming to!

Light hearted maybe, but some serious points about the difficulties that primary schools will face in facilitating five hours of high-quality physical activity a week are raised. Systems must be put in place to actively encourage all children, particularly the more reluctant participants, to get involved.

What can we do?

There are many ways in which this can be done and many schools in which physical activity is already having a major impact upon the lives of children, but with two hours becoming five, ways of further extending and enhancing capacity will need to be found over the coming years.

Not every primary school possesses the sort of facilities that makes it easy to deliver high-quality PE and sport. For larger primary schools in particular, many of which only have one smallish hall as an inside space, giving all children their weekly allotment is not always easy – particularly during spells of bad weather. Similarly, if the school’s only indoor space is used as a dining room, lunchtime clubs cannot take place.

Yet spaces are often available within schools that can, if modified slightly, be utilised for various forms of physical activity. A large cloakroom or a classroom with tables pushed to the side would be more than adequate for some movement sessions and why invest in expensive equipment for a sport, such as table tennis, when it can be played on classroom tables. When it is wet, clubs don’t have to be cancelled. Children can work on tactics, designing their own games or competitions; even promotional materials to encourage friends to take part.

Often facilities are available nearby or, when it comes to after-school clubs, competitions or festivals, it is possible to share facilities with nearby schools. With only 40 pupils, two full-time teachers a tiny hall and playground and no school field, it would be very easy for Alex Owens, headteacher at Drayton Parslow Village School, to make excuses that there is simply not enough space to deliver high-quality physical activity. Instead the nearby playing field and sports hall, both owned by the parish council, are utilised for PE lessons and out-of-school-hours activities.

‘Procedures have to be followed,’ says Alex. ‘There are letters to get out to parents and, as activity is technically off site, risk-assessments to fill in, but the quality of what can be delivered and experienced is enhanced to such an extent that school staff think it’s well worth it. We now run weekly basketball, multi-sports and football sessions.’ Sadly, elsewhere community facilities, even those situated close to schools, often remain idle during the day.

Although school sport partnerships have been active in improving capacity in primary schools and developing skill bases locally, either through providing training or arranging team teaching situations where secondary school PE teachers work alongside primary colleagues, there is a general lack of awareness about just how much expertise is out there and how best to utilise it. County Sports Partnerships, National Governing Bodies of Sport, clubs, community groups and coaching companies can all deliver activity, so it is up to headteachers to make themselves aware of what it is possible to do.

Systems need to be put in place that allow the maximum number of children to benefit from externally delivered services, so a culture that permits the work of external deliverers to become part of what the school offers, rather than just an add-on to its provision, needs to be created. Only the headteacher and the senior leadership team can provide their primary link teacher with the profile within the school that will allow them to successfully promote the activities and capacity of the school sport partnership.

Despite massive improvements and the growth of more proactive approaches to organising and delivering physical activity over the last five or so years there remains a laissez-faire attitude among many primary school teachers towards children’s participation in out-of-school-hours physical activity. Allow a traditional ‘they’ll turn up if they want to’ attitude to flourish and sporty kids with parental support who are able to condition themselves to maintain a commitment over a number of weeks will benefit from the provision offered. However, those who need it most, the semi-sporty types, the disorganised, those who would turn up and enjoy physical activity if reminded or asked, are unlikely to do so if left to their own devices. In this sort of climate there is no chance of engaging the non-sporty types, yet they still have just as much need to stay active and healthy as anyone else.

Julie Wardle, the headteacher of Carlton Central Junior School in Nottingham, is overseeing the implementation of a specific development plan for PE and sport based around the Every Child Matters outcomes. ‘We want to target particular groups who we believe will benefit from certain types of physical activity,’ she says. ‘To raise standards and motivate more children to get into sport I also employ a specialist PE teacher who delivers half of the curriculum themselves and leads training and mentoring arrangements for the rest of the staff who deliver the other half.’

Benefits of physical activity

In the past PE has often existed as a stand-alone subject; the domain of the PE coordinator or the school’s token male teacher. Although this perception is changing, there are still teachers, senior leadership teams and headteachers who continue to think physical activity is not really any business of theirs and is at best, vaguely relevant to the more important academic classroom learning that takes precedent in their minds.

Yet schools are discovering that physical activity can have a major impact in many areas that go way beyond sport, fitness and physical health. Involving pupils in high-quality physical activity can improve behaviour and attitudes to learning. An out-of-school-hours sports and arts club at Abbey Park Middle School in Pershore, Worcestershire has proven particularly beneficial for a group of Year 6 children with a range of problems from low self-esteem and concentration issues, to ADHD and obsessive compulsive disorder. Abbey Park’s assistant headteacher, Nicky Sage, explains why: ‘Children learn how to concentrate, cooperate and coordinate themselves in an environment they enjoy. Many are visual and kinaesthetic learners so having professional coaches modelling activities and skills has helped youngsters develop strategies they can take with them into class,’ she says.

Two of the group have gone on to become playground leaders. Another three have become peer mentors and two girls who had been in and out of friendships on the playground and in class for the best part of three years have found some consistency in their relationship and have even joined the school hockey club. Another child who previously had considerable difficulty in social situations has joined a local golf club with his dad after playing tri-golf at school. ‘It’s great to see the difference PE and sport can make to the lives of young people,’ says a delighted Nicky Sage.

Dave Turner assistant headteacher and primary link teacher at Rift House Primary School in Hartlepool adds, ‘It is important to collect evidence that demonstrates the effect PE is having on groups and individuals. This can either be empirical data, such as improvements in attendance, or anecdotal in the case of a teacher’s impressions of a particular child’s attitude to learning or their behaviour.’

Out-of-school activity

Not all of the five hours of a child’s physical activity a week has to take place in school or indeed be delivered either on the school premises or by school staff. In fact, in order to ensure the workload of teachers and other school staff does not become unmanageable it will be crucial to engage with outside organisations that have the capacity to deliver high-quality activity. School sport partnerships and their colleagues in county sports partnerships, who organise community sport locally, will have databases full of clubs, groups and private groups or individuals who they deem capable of working in schools.

But do policies and procedures, particularly in areas such as health and safety and child protection, allow schools to make the most of the expertise that is out there? Guidance from the PE Association suggests that a qualified, CRB-checked coach with the necessary child protection training, someone who is deemed competent by the school sport partnership and the school in question to deliver activity in schools, does not have to have a member of school staff in the same room as them when delivering an activity. Supervision may be ‘at a distance’ and some headteachers, such as Julie Wardle, are satisfied with such coaches taking sessions alone as long as there are members of school staff on site while activity is taking place.

What is certain is that for five hours a week to become a reality, insular cultures that consider school staff as the only rightful guardians of a child’s educational experiences need to be overturned. Organisational structures that challenge such attitudes and that allow significant multi-agency delivery to take place smoothly and without a major increase in staff workload must be found. With the national drive towards a different sort of schooling gathering pace, with extended services, Every Child Matters and multi-agency collaboration at its heart, headteachers must find or facilitate new and more effective ways of raising their school’s capacity to deliver physical activity that goes way beyond what school staff themselves are able to deliver.

Crispin Andrews is a teacher and freelance writer