Want to improve academic performance? Look to PE.

There is much debate among teachers and academic researchers about factors which influence cognitive functioning and academic attainment. Nature or nurture, traditional or progressive methods (whatever they mean), growth mindset, direct instruction – everyone has a view. If possible, there is even more debate about the quality of evidence supporting each claim.

In this context, it is perhaps surprising that one area that recent research shows has a positive impact on cognitive performance, and even exam results, is often ignored: physical exercise. A review article on the exercise effects on the brain and cognition published in 2008 in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, concluded that research across cognitive neuroscience and medical disciplines indicated that physical exercise can lead to increased physical and mental health throughout life (Holman, Erickson and Kramer, 2008). A review of 79 studies in this area by Chang et al (2012) concluded that exercise has specific positive effects on cognitive performance both during the exercise period and afterwards, even after a delay.

Cognitive effects in school age children

The majority is studies featured in these reviews featured older adults rather than children, with many focusing on mitigation of the effects of ageing in a medical context. In considering the educational effects of physical activity on school age children, numerous studies, including a paper by Dave Ellemberg & Mathilde St-Louis-Deschênes (2010) published in Psychology of Exercise and Sport, show significant positive outcomes. This study of 7 year old and 10 year old boys, compared the effect of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on reaction time and choice tests with 30 minutes of watching TV. The results showed a significant positive effect of both measures, but especially the choice tests – the measure most resembling a school task.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has not summarised research on physical activity in its Teaching and Learning Toolkit, but does include physical development approaches in their Early Years Toolkit, with the focus primarily on growth and physical development. The EEF concludes that there is, as yet, little high quality research into the educational effects physical activity, but notes that the costs are low and that there is some evidence that young children learn better after physical activity. They recommend that early years settings consider if active play and physical exercise are integrated into each day.

How much physical activity is needed to have an effect?

Research shows that to have a positive effect on cognitive performance (as well as a range of health benefits), periods of exercise do not need to be long but they need to be repeated regularly, and an at least moderate level of aerobic activity needs to be achieved. In a review of over 850 studies, Strong et al (2005) recommended 60 minutes a day of varied, age-appropriate aerobic exercise was effective, and in their review Keays & Allison (1995) found that a similar period 3-5 times a week was effective for Canadian school children. In a large-scale study of Californian elementary school students, Carlson et al (2015) found that just 30 minutes a day had a positive impact on learning through increased attention and reduced off-task behaviour. They proposed that this could be achieved through a mix of classroom exercise breaks and extending opportunities for physical activity during existing school recess. The research team made several recommendations for implementing a programme in schools (see the reading list below).

Does this improve attainment?

The short answer is yes. An influential study by Trudeau and Shepard (2008) argued that sacrificing PE time from the timetable would not improve academic performance whereas increasing time devoted to PE would produce numerous health and behavioural benefits whilst not hindering academic outcomes. In a study as part of the large-scale Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, Booth et al found that regular physical exercise in 11-16 year olds in fact produced significant increases in attainment in English, Maths and Science, and especially for girls in Science. This study indicates that devoting a little more time each day for exercise, even if this is rescheduled from other subjects, would have a measurable positive impact on grades in academic subjects.

What can schools do?

Despite the finding of such studies, PE remains a subject that is sometimes reduced in the face of other curriculum demands. There is considerable evidence to support the introduction of daily physical exercise into the school day. This could be as little as 30 minutes per day. It could be achieved through a mixture of existing break time activity and additional scheduled time, but the evidence points to the greatest impact when children are led by a trained adult. Given the benefits that regular physical activity can provide across all subjects, there are several points school leaders should consider if they want to implement this:

  • Duration of physical activity – at least 30 minutes a day, each day
  • Type of activity – at least moderate aerobic activity, age-appropriate and varied from session to session
  • Implementation – can be achieved through a mixture of existing PE lessons, physical activity breaks within the existing curriculum, and opportunities for activity at break and lunchtime
  • Staffing – Staff members leading physical activity do not need to be specialists (unless a particular activity demands it), but they do need to be trained. Your PE specialists can play a valuable role

I don’t believe that for most schools, increasing physical activity in school would not require wholesale readjustment of the curriculum or the school day. Relatively minor adjustments, but involving all teachers, have the potential to achieve real measurable benefits.

Update, March 2018

I wrote this piece in January 2018. In February the Youth Sport Trust published a report on PE Provision in Secondary Schools. Worryingly, this report revealed a continuing decline in the time allocated to physical education in UK secondary schools. I have written about the implications of this decline here.

Useful Reading

This isn’t intended as a comprehensive bibliography, but as a useful resource for those who want to read further. I have only include publications that are available without a licence or payment. Some are under Creative Commons licences. If you know of interesting studies I have missed, please let me know.

Associations between objectively measured physical activity and academic attainment in adolescents from a UK cohort. Booth, J.N. et al (2003) British Journal of Sports Medicine 48:3.

Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Charles H. Hillman, Kirk I. Erickson, and Arthur F. Kramer (2008) Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9:58-65.

EEF Early Years Toolkit – summarises research into the impact of early years approaches, including physical activity.

Implementing 10-minute classroom physical activity breaks in California elementary schools. Jessica Engelberg et al. Presentation based on the California elementary school study.

Advertisement

In Praise of Partnership

I have been privileged to work with many colleagues from other schools who are committed to the benefits of collaborative working. As a result, Both I and the schools I represented have benefitted from several partnerships over the years.

“The most valuable resource that teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.” Robert John Meehan

This is one of my favourite educational quotes. I believe that teachers flourish by working collaboratively and that this collaboration is most powerful when not restricted to a single school. Achieving this isn’t always easy to sustain in a changing educational landscape. A few years ago I ran a conference workshop on partnership working. It was well-attended, but there was a wide range of experience within the group. There were leaders from schools in successful partnerships but in areas facing falling rolls and finding themselves competing for pupils with partner schools in the local area. Others were keen to work in partnership, but felt isolated either by geography, or because other local schools had their own priorities. Some were exploring how existing partnerships could work when member schools were now becoming members of different academy groups or sponsors. Perhaps it has always been true that when schools work together it is in a state of ‘coopertition’, but the concerns expressed in the workshop, by colleagues interested in partnership, seemed to underline new challenges.

I have been privileged to work with many colleagues from other schools who are committed to the benefits of collaborative working. As a result, Both I and the schools I represented have benefitted from several partnerships over the years. This post is about some of the benefits from partnerships I have been involved in over the last couple of years.

OXFORD EAST PARTNERSHIP

The Oxford East Partnership (OEP) is made up of eight primary schools (some of which also have nursery provision) an all-through school and a secondary school serving the same area of Oxford City. Since it’s formation, several schools have become academies, a new free primary school has joined, and one secondary has become an all-through school. Sadly a local children’s centre closed last year as the result of cuts to local authority funding. Throughout these changes, the shared rationale for the partnership has remained constant. it is summarised in the OEP Vision statement:

All schools in the Partnership will work together to secure better outcomes for all members of our community in East Oxford and Cowley by:

  • Raising achievement of all children to improve life chances
  • Engaging families
  • Promoting community engagement
  • Celebrating and embracing cultural diversity

OEP aims to serve the children and families in the local area, which contains some of the most economically disadvantaged wards in the county. It originally received funding from the local authority, but then became self-supporting. Administrative support is provided by one of the member schools. The Chair and Vice Chair are elected annually and rotate between schools, the vice chair from the previous academic year usually becoming Chair the next.

There are several areas of focus for the OEP:

Achievement of pupils. This has included several projects over the years, including adoption of the storytelling curriculum across all member schools based on training from Oxford Story Museum. This meant all schools took a similar approach to the development of writing, for a variety of purposes. There was also collaborative work on meeting the needs of more able students in mathematics (hosted at one of the secondary schools) and in English, particularly writing (hosted by the other secondary). The partnership is also a forum for addressing issues, such as school attendance, that affect the achievement of pupils.

Continuing Professional Development. The Partnership has promoted professional development in two main ways: sharing the costs of training at one school by opening CPD to other members, and organising joint CPD as a partnership which addresses common needs of the member schools. Notable successes here have been moderation of writing with the adoption of the new curriculum and assessment, and Partnership conferences, the most recent being last October. The conferences combined plenary sessions featuring keynote speakers with smaller workshops run by colleagues from member schools. In either case costs were much reduced through this collaborative approach, as opposed to sending staff out on CPD courses, and there was more scope for ongoing work between colleagues, building on these events.

Recruitment and retention of staff. This is an issue that is raised at almost every meeting! Oxford is well-served for ITT providers, but is an extremely expensive area to rent or buy in. It is therefore often difficult to recruit and especially retain teaching staff at all levels. OEP has adopted a joint approach to tackling this issue, producing a joint brochure pointing out the benefits of joining not just a new school, but a supportive partnership of schools. This is especially true for school leaders, many of whom say that the most valuable aspect of the partnership is as a forum to discuss issues that they face in school.

OXFORD CITY LEARNING

Oxford City Learning (OCL) is made up a group of seven schools in and around Oxford. The member schools were originally all secondaries, one has since become an all-through school, one now partners a primary school and another is sponsoring a free school due to open next year. Oxford Hospital School is also a member, as is an Alternative Provision College.

The work of the partnership has been wide ranging, but was founded on the premise that if Oxford had world-class Higher education, it should have world-class secondary education too. In its current form, the OCL structure consisted of three groups:

Strategy group. This is made up of the Headteachers and Principals of the member schools. As well as providing a regular discussion forum for these school leaders, it sets the strategic priorities for OCL and commissions and evaluates the work of the other groups. Principals may also coordinate joint responses to educational issues affecting the local area and emergency planning, such as the response to severe weather.

Curriculum and Standards Group. This group is made up of SLT members responsible for curriculum and assessment in each school. In recent years, the group has worked on the new curriculum, got to grips with the impact of the EBacc, life beyond levels, and new assessments at GCSE and A level.

Professional Leadership Development Group. This group is made up of SLT members responsible for CPD at the member schools, and is the group I have been involved in. This covers each career stage, from initial teacher training through to the growth of school leaders. For several years the PLDG has organised an annual ‘Hot Topics’ event where school leaders meet to address an issue the strategy group has agreed affects all members schools. Recent topics have included ensuring that vulnerable pupils make good progress, the best use of the Pupil Premium Grant, and mental health issues in schools. The group also runs an Annual OCL cohort of the Oxford Teaching Schools Alliance courses for Middle Leadership. It also works with the Oxford Education Deanery on action research projects by teachers and academic research projects run in school.

As well as these groups, the OCL schools also form an IYFAP Strategy Group to improve the work of the City In-Year Fair Access Panel. This meets before the panel meeting and focuses on improving the way that member schools can work together to improve outcomes for pupils and reduce exclusions. This work includes improving transition between schools (including transition of vulnerable pupils from primary school) and evaluating the effectiveness of managed moves between schools.

I hope these examples illustrate just a few of the ways in which schools, teachers, and students benefit from collaborative partnership in the local area. I would enjoy reading about other examples of successful partnership working. I believe that the key to the success of both OEP and OCL has been twofold: A commitment to a shared purpose, coupled with flexibility to see opportunity in a time of challenge. This has enabled both partnerships to continue to be effective in the midst of the break-neck pace of change we have seen in education. Adhering to a clear vision of what the partnership seeks to achieve enables it to weather this change: individuals may come and go, different types of school may emerge, and new policies and procedures may be enacted from on high, but the aims of the partnership do not. In holding on to the most valuable resource we have – each other – we can grow together, becoming more effective in meeting the needs of the families we serve.

Picture: maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com

Ten things to look forward to in the Spring term of 2018

Summer may feel like a very distant prospect. Don’t despair, though, there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the Spring term 2018.

We have welcomed New Year in with Storm Dylan, and with the new term about to start, the long, warm days of Summer may feel like a very distant prospect. Don’t despair, though, there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the Spring term 2018.

Here’s my top ten list:

  1. Christmas isn’t over yet! Christmas isn’t just a single day, but lasts until 6th January (twelfth night). Traditionally the decorations stay up till then.
  2. If that isn’t enough for you, Orthodox Christmas Day this year is on Sunday 7th January.
  3. Why not take the opportunity to reconnect with friends or family with whom you may have just exchanged Christmas or new year greetings, but hadn’t seen much during 2017?
  4. Like me, you may have received books as Christmas presents and will be looking forward to reading them. This year, I’m also going to get to grips with all the books on the shelves that I bought but didn’t actually get round to reading. Why not get together with some colleagues and start a book club or book swap in the staff room? This can be a way to help achieve workable wellbeing.
  5. The return to school will be marked by both pupils and colleagues sporting their gifts from Santa. You could exploit the entertainment value here by  playing ‘Spot the new jumper/tie/shoes’, etc. A variant it guessing how long colleagues will take to notice your new item – I don’t know why this is, but whenever I wear anything new it is only noticed on the third time I wear it). With pupils you can use pencil cases or stationary to monitor trends in popular culture – I’m betting on The Last Jedi.
  6. Setting your alarm again for the start of term may be, well, alarming, but remember that from now on the days will be getting longer. Getting outside in daylight each day will help beat the winter blues. Even if the sky is overcast, that natural sunlight will do you good. British Summer Time starts again on Sunday 25th March (clocks go forward 1 hour).
  7. While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the little signs that spring is on it’s way and take notice of small changes – already you may see some leaves of bulbs poking through the soil, or some buds on trees or shrubs swelling before they blossom.
  8. The start of a new year is an ideal time to commit to your own wellbeing. Why not choose some positive new year resolutions for looking after yourself and others, Or take a look at #Teacher5adayNew Year Pledges from @MartynReah for ideas for teacher wellbeing
  9. While some ‘wet breaks’ are inevitable at this time of year, it’s not all cold misery this term – there are plenty of feasts, festivals and holy days – this year many clustered around February/March in a multicultural medley. Here are some dates in 2017: Burns’ Night is on Thursday 25 Jan, Shrove Tuesday (pancake day) on Tuesday 13 February is closely followed by Valentine’s Day on Wednesday 14 February, and then by Chinese New Year on Friday 16 February (Year of the dog). Purim starts on Wednesday 28 February, ending on the next evening. St David’s Day is also on Thursday 1 Mar, and the Festival of Holi begins that evening and ends on the evening of Friday 2nd March. Mothering Sunday in the UK is on 11th March this year, with St Patrick’s Day on the following Saturday, 17 Mar. Good Friday is on 30 March, with Easter Sunday on 1 April.
  10. The best thing about working in education this year and every other, is knowing that what we do makes a real positive difference for the children in our care. For some of them, the school holidays can be difficult and, although they might not always show it, they’ll have been be looking forward to the new term and to seeing us again. Make it a good one.

So, what are you looking forward to this Spring? Have I missed any key dates from this list? Let me know and I’ll add them.

Happy New Year!