Investing in Secondary PE: good for both health and academic success

In January, I wrote a post about the clear evidence for the link between regular physical exercise and improved academic performance by children in school.

Last month, the Youth Sport Trust (YST) published the report of its survey of UK secondary schools: PE Provision in Secondary Schools 2018. The report, based on a survey of teachers in secondary schools, highlights a worrying decline in Physical Education:

  • Curriculum time for PE has declined over time, most markedly at KS4.
  • Curriculum time for PE reduces as students move from KS3 to KS4, and beyond.
  • The main reason given for the decline was that additional time was given to core subjects or EBacc subjects.

The YST report concludes that these findings confirm a continuing ‘spiralling downward trend’ in the curriculum time allocated to PE in secondary schools, and that the good work seen in primary schools was rapidly undone. Primary schools will welcome the continuation of the Primary PE and Sport Premium, but there is currently no equivalent financial incentive for secondary schools.

The report focuses on the negative impact this will have on students’ health, particularly in the light of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan which aims for an hour of physical activity a day; 30 minutes of which are in school. The average for KS4 quoted in the report equates to barely 20 minutes per day, most likely achieved in one or two sessions a week. While this is hugely important for the health of young people and the future impact of obesity on the NHS and other services, I believe that it will also be detrimental to academic performance in school. Research has shown that devoting curriculum time to physical exercise rather than having a detrimental effect on GCSE subjects, is in fact linked to improved performance by students in English, Maths and Science (Booth et al, 2014).

The YST report calls on the government and school leaders to do more to promote PE and the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle. I think it’s also worth adding that we should take time to understand the research showing that what may appear to be an easy “quick fix” to meet academic performance targets is likely to be counter-productive.

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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.

Dear Santa… I’m writing again for Christmas 2017.

Dear Santa,

You may recall that I wrote to you last year with my wish list of educational gifts. I’m writing again this year with an update, even though some of my year 10 class tell me you don’t exist (don’t worry’ they’ll grow out of it).

You’ll notice that many of the things I asked for last year are still on my list. I’m not saying it’s your fault I didn’t get them last year and perhaps you think I wasn’t fully appreciative of the fidget spinners you left instead, but if you could see your way to one or two of these it would be really helpful.

A 25th Hour. I know you must be able to manipulate time, how else do you deliver all those presents in one night? All I’m asking is for 60 more minutes each day to help me fit it all in. I’ve tried to get the better of email, I’ve tried to plan for tomorrow, to plan for peak times, and do workload impact assessments, but it’s no good: there just aren’t enough hours in the day!

Invisible goal posts. Many children respond well to sporting analogies and I’d like a way to help explain how the new GCSE grades work. We could play a match where we know that there are goalposts, but aren’t allowed to know exactly where they are. Players can take shots at the end of the field and then, after the final whistle has blown, we can reveal where the goalposts were (adjusting them to allow only a few player’s attempts to count) and only then reveal the final score. If that isn’t possible, may I have the game I hear some schools are playing called ‘invent the goalposts’ where they just make them up. They’re not real, but they offer the illusion of comfort. Failing that, how about a unicorn?

A new Progress 8 coefficient. Yes, I know I get a brand new one each year, but it just doesn’t seem to be working properly. What I’d really like is a progress measure that measures progress and doesn’t get caught up in whether a school has got enough pupils doing particular qualifications.

A basket. Last year I asked for a bucket, but since then baskets seem to be the in thing, and it seems that in English schools nowadays, everyone has to have their baskets (or buckets) full. The trouble is, I can’t seem to find one I want. It’s called the ‘Really useful qualifications that help individual students fulfil their career aspirations, progress in life and become productive, responsible citizens within an egalitarian compassionate society‘ basket of qualifications. If you could help with my search for this, that would be fantastic.

An understanding of the delegated SEND budget. Sorry, but I still don’t get this. I have tried to understand how this funding works, but however hard I think about it, it doesn’t seem to make sense. The bible was of some help: Jesus apparently fed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes. This seems to equate closely to the funding model, but even in this example there is no explanation of what to do when more people turn up, undergo a lengthy assessment process, have their needs identified in an EHCP, and then the school receives additional funding of… well, nothing.

A self-help guide to being a better teacher. I really need this because there just isn’t anyone who has advice on this. Literally whole minutes can go by with complete silence from the DFE, Ofsted, Ofqual, external advisors, politicians of every hue, think tanks, pressure groups, parents, pundits in the media, taxi drivers, and the lady behind me in the queue in Sainsbury’s telling me how to do my job better.

A ticket to Shanghai. I’ve been hearing a lot about how well pupils do in Shanghai, particularly in maths, so I’d like to take a trip there. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring back some useful things: some resources and teaching methods yes, but also generous non contact time, a millennia-old appreciation of the value of learning, consistently high parental engagement, and an ingrained universal cultural respect for the status of teachers, which also make up the full package.

Mousetrap. You know, the board game with lots of plastic bits that my Mum said would only get lost. This maybe doesn’t have much to do with education, but I put it on my Christmas list each Year through the 1970s. Thought I’d give it another go.

Thanks Santa, I’ll leave a mince pie, a nip of single malt, and a carrot for Rudolf by the fireplace as usual.

Merry Christmas,

Rodger

What’s on your list to Santa?

Picture credit: www.freepik.com

Dear Santa… An education wish list

Dear Santa,

I know this is your busiest time of year, but amidst running your workshop, feeding your reindeer, checking your list (twice), and delivering all those toys, would you be kind enough to have a look at my school wish list? These are just suggestions; I certainly don’t expect everything, but some progress on one or two would be really helpful.

Invisible goal posts. Many children respond well to sporting analogies and I’d like a way to help explain how the new GCSE grades work. We could play a match where we know that there are goalposts, but aren’t allowed to know exactly where they are. Players can take shots at the end of the field and then, after the final whistle has blown, we can reveal where the goalposts were (adjusting them to allow only a few player’s attempts to count) and only then reveal the final score.

A new Progress 8 coefficient. I know I had one of these last year, so it isn’t very old, but it just doesn’t seem to be working properly. What I’d really like is a progress measure that measures progress and doesn’t get caught up in whether a school has got enough pupils doing particular qualifications.

A bucket. To be honest I’m not sure how I feel about buckets. I know they can be useful – you probably have one hanging off the back of your sleigh to clear up after the reindeer -and it seems that in English schools nowadays, everyone has to have their buckets full. The trouble is, I can’t seem to find the bucket I want. It’s called the ‘Really useful qualifications that help individual students fulfil their career aspirations, progress in life and become productive, responsible citizens within an egalitarian compassionate society’. If you could help with the search for this, that would be fantastic.

An understanding of the delegated SEND budget. My role at school is now focussed on inclusion and I have tried to understand how this funding works, but however hard I think about it, it doesn’t seem to make sense. The bible has been of some help: Jesus apparently fed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes. This seems to equate closely to the funding model, but even in this example there is no explanation of what to do when more people turn up, undergo a lengthy assessment process, have their needs identified in an EHC Plan, and then schools receives additional funding of… well, nothing. 

A ticket to Shanghai. I’ve been hearing a lot about how well pupils do in Shanghai, particularly in maths, so I’d like to take a trip there. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring back some useful things: some resources and teaching methods yes, but also generous non contact time, a millennia-old appreciation of the value of learning, consistently high parental engagement, and an ingrained universal cultural respect for the status of the teaching profession, which also make up the full package.

Mousetrap. You know, the board game with lots of plastic bits that my mum said would only get lost. Not educational maybe but I put it on my Christmas list each Year through the 1970s. Thought I’d give it another go.

Thanks Santa, I’ll leave a mince pie, a nip of single malt, and a carrot for Rudolf by the fireplace as usual.
What’s on your list to Santa?

Picture credit: www.freepik.com

 

Reverse Calendar for Advent

I wrote this post at the start of Advent 2016, then followed it up with an update when the project finished at the end of term.

This is a seasonal post for Advent. I want to share the work of a couple of my colleagues at St Gregory’s, Fran Walsh and Grant Price. They’ve put together a great a fantastic programme for tutor groups during Advent. It’s easily adaptable should others want to use the idea.

For several years we’ve raised money for the Oxford Food Bank in the run-up to Christmas, linked to a ‘Follow the Star’ activity where pupils follow clues to find the location of a star within the school, picking up instructions to complete a task. This has proved popular but feedback this year was that KS4 students wanted a change. 

Fran and Grant have worked to produce ‘reverse’ Advent calendars – instead of getting something out of them each day, you put something in. This originated (we think) with an idea posted on www.muminthemadhouse.com as a seasonal activity. KS3 tutor groups will be making a Jesse tree, building it up each day in Advent. They will continue to collect for the food bank, as in previous years. Each tutor group has one of these sheets. Pupils commit to bringing in one of the items so that as a group they collect them all.

KS4 students will be focussing on work being carried out by CAFOD to help those most in need, especially refugees. They will be collecting teenage items for a local charity, Stepping Stones. They work with vulnerable and homeless people and have requested particular help in collecting care products for teenagers, so the reverse calendar includes these.


Fran introduced students to this on Friday 25th November, in preparation for the start of Advent this Sunday and the launch of the activity on Monday. The initial response of students has been really heartening and full of generosity:

“But Miss, you can’t have pasta without pasta sauce. I’m gonna bring both!”

“What do you mean by ‘bag of rice’? My parents only buy 10kg bags, can I bring one of those in?”

“What sort of sweets should we bring? Probably best to get gummy, we don’t want an old person to break their first teeth.”

“We don’t just want to get the cheap brands because we want people to feel special.”

“I live right next to Sainsbury’s; I don’t mind bringing more in.” (Other supermarkets are available) 

I hope you’ll agree that this looks like an excellent start to our focus on giving this Advent. Please feel free to pick up on any of these ideas. It would also be great to learn about what other schools are doing for Advent and Christmas.
Update – 19th December 2016

The project went extremely well with students and staff all pulling together to collect items for both charities. The idea really caught the imagination of the wider community: several families decided to put together a whole box themselves and the appeal received coverage in the local press including this Oxford Mail article

The happy end result this generosity was that we collected far more than we had originally anticipated. In fact we had to make two runs to the Oxford Food Bank to get everything there! It was truly heartening to see the way that students took a lead in demonstrating a practical response to our school value of compassion. We’re pleased to have been able to support two charities whose work is needed more than ever. 

Seymour Papert: Computing and Creativity

Seymour Papert, mathematician, computer scientist and educational philosopher died on 31st July, aged 88. He was a passionate advocate for computing in education, not because he thought technology could provide useful teaching tools, but believed programming could unleash the creativity of children. 

Born in South Africa, Papert studied mathematics, going on to gain a PhD at Cambridge, and then to work with Jean Piaget in Geneva. He later drew on Piaget’s ideas while developing the Logo programming language and its associated floor ‘turtle’ at MIT. His aim was a simple programming language which nevertheless included the versatility to solve complex problems. The experience of Logo for many children in the 80s & 90s will have been using a physical or screen turtle to draw geometrical shapes. Papert saw this as important, giving children a way of exploring geometrical & mathematical concepts, but he  only intended this as the start. Logo was conceived to put the child in charge of this exploration; connecting the abstract to the concrete, learning creative problem solving, and gaining mastery of new technology as active developers, rather than just passive users. Sadly for many children in the UK their experience of Logo may not have gone much beyond following instructions on a worksheet to draw shapes on a screen, the antithesis of what Papert intended. For those, however, who were allowed to explore logo further, or it’s commercial inceptions such as Lego Mindstorms, a world of possibilities opened up.

Logo may no longer be the first programming language of choice in schools, but several versions are still popular and the derivative NetLogo modelling tool is still going strong. The principles (and particularly turtle graphics coding commands) live on in tools such as Scratch and text-based languages like Python. I have recently taught some computing at KS4 after a break from the subject of ten years. I’m pleased to see students captivated by the the ability that coding gives them to take charge of a task and create imaginative (and often elegant) solutions. When I look at the youngest pupils in our all-through school embarking on their journey into computing, I can only wonder at what they will be achieving the next ten years. I think we need to understand that, while we teachers may be the facilitators, it will be them taking us there, not the other way around. I believe a curriculum and pedagogy based on creative exploration would be a legacy of which Seymour Papert would approve. 

As ever, I welcome constructive comments. If you want to read more about Papert’s contribution to computing and creativity in schools, I recommend this excellent article Papert, Turtles and Creativity written in 2015 by Miles Berry. 

NetLogo is a programming language developed by Uri Wilensky at Northwestern University and is available here.

Lego MINDSTORMS is a trademark of the Lego Group.

Python is an educational programming language produced by the Python Software Foundation.

Scratch is a free first programming tool developed by the MIT Media Lab and is available here.

Image created using Logo interpreter by Joshua Bell.

pendown 

And now for something completely different

We spent last week at school doing things that were completely different. We do this every year, using gained time from years 11 & 13, and year 10 being on work experience to suspend the timetable for years 7, 8 & 9 so we can challenge ourselves to work in different ways, try something new, combine knowledge and skills from different areas and hone our skills.

This year we had trips to Germany and France, we put on Macbeth in a day, we fought to survive on Mars like Mark Watney, built a WWI museum to commemorate the Centenary of the battle of the Somme, painted portraits, then designed and made frames for them, sang our hearts out, pitched products to dragons, ran year quizzes entirely composed of student questions, hosted a fantastic art show will all years represented (Y7 Terracotta Army in photo) and held a brilliant sports day, the best one ever (although I tend to say that every year). We may not be able to do it again.

Why not? One reason is that Year 10 work experience looks increasingly untenable. There are now whole fields such as healthcare where you need to be over 16 to get a placement. Work experience at KS4 is based on an idea of leaving education at 16 which is no longer true. Maybe this is a local issue, but it seems to be harder than ever to get quality placements – and we appreciate all the employers who do provide them – and more expensive to complete the process. This year more placements seemed to fall through at the last minute, sometimes because of the employer, sometimes because of the student or their family. We are thinking of moving it to year 12. They would be over 16, more likely to have a career in mind, and we could link it to their A Level / BTEC subjects. This change would make our alternative week more difficult, but we would still have some released time and could probably adapt.

The second problem is workload. Traditionally the people organising the week have to spend the next one lying in a darkened room. We made changes last year to ease the load, and this year to distribute leadership to year teams and clusters of subjects. My colleagues were their usual brilliant, enthusiastic creative selves, but they are also tired. As well as the ‘usual’ of improving standards, we have all worked hard to help disadvantaged pupils make better progress, introduce our new KS3 assessment model, we have had new GCSEs to learn, plan and implement, and the same for post-16 qualifications. Meeting the challenge of these changes will continue over the next few years. It’s a simple fact that something has to give.

The third factor is attendance. Last year our attendance fell dramatically during this week. We took steps to counteract this, flagging it, simplifying the programme, explaining it and, to be blunt removing some elements that were less aligned with the core aims. At the start of the week this seemed to have worked; attendance was 3% on same period the previous year. I looked at the figures for Friday in despair, however. They dragged the week to worse than the year before. We had to close partially because of the strike on Tuesday. We had been expecting Eid on Wednesday & Thursday, we know the proportion of students who will be celebrating. The attendance codes that concern me aren’t ‘Y’ or ‘R’ but ‘I’ and ‘N’. I know the jump in ‘I’ isn’t all illness, and the number of as-yet-unexplained absences on sports day was just dispiriting. It was a joyous event. The triumphs, large and small, the enthusiasm, the encouragement & support, the achievements, the enjoyment, ‘This Girl Can’ ambassadors proudly wearing their pink t-shirts, the camera dearie, the celebration of community – all of it lifted the heart. I’d really like any help readers can give about how to engage those families who think that all that is just pointless and not worth their children coming to school. My point here, however, is we just can’t afford a drop in attendance like this. We’re RI and while our last HMI letter was very positive, attendance remains a key issue.

I know that we created memories last week that will stay with students for the rest of their lives, helping form the ‘what’s left when we’ve forgotten all we learned’, but I wonder for how much longer we can afford to step away from the timetable and do something completely different given the constraints we face.