Challenges and Opportunities for the Scottish Physical Education Profession

I was invited to speak at yesterday’s  National Conference on Physical Education in Scotland held at Edinburgh University.

After an initial preamble, where I indulged myself with a few personal reminiscences, I set out what I thought to be the some of the main challenges and opportunities facing the profession.  As I explained at the conference there is a huge challenge to be faced by all of us in education relating to the fallout from the recession and associated reductions in public service budgets.  I will not focus upon these here as I regard that to be an essentially non-productive line of enquiry – as opposed to focusing upon those things that we can change and over which we can actually have some control.

Here they are in no particular order of priority: (please note that  these challenges and opprtunities are not intended to be an exhaustive list)



There is a danger that the profession see the target of 2 hours of high quality physical education as a charter for the profession – as opposed to an entitlement for children and young people.  If we narrow the definition of high quality to be only something which can only be delivered by qualified PE teachers then it unnecessarily limits the huge potential support we can gain from others who have much to offer, e.g. primary class teachers.


I was once described as a “radical traditionalist” and was flattered by such an imaginative and oxymoron-ish sobriquet. I believe there is much to be gained from reference to the values and standards which can be characterised as “traditional”.  However, if “traditionalism” is simply used as an excuse to limit children’s experiences to what the teacher feels comfortable with then it becomes a significant barrier to progress.


The concept of 2 hours of high quality physical education is based upon a premise/assumption that children’s lives will be enhanced by exposure to such an experience.  If the profession take such a time allocation for granted  and does not engage in enhancing the quality, then it may be that at some later date – when research evidence possibly suggests that there has been no positive impact upon children’s lives – that some other alternative mechanism for improving the health and well being of children is devised, which may not depend to the same extent upon the profession.

Guidance reliance:

Arguably the  physical education profession has seen Guidance teaching to be a route for progression.   Whether one agrees with this or not there is a strong likelihood that the future of Guidance provision in Scotland will change radically over the next ten years.  If this does happen then many in the profession, who would have previously seen this to be there preferred route ,may have to look elsewhere.


I’ve written before about the “mile-wide, inch deep” phenomenon. Such an arrangement runs counter to the principle of “deep learning” which underpins curriculum for excellence. 


Has the profession unwittingly excluded a large number of children by seeing the core programme as being a precursor to the thing that really matters, i.e. the certificated programme?

Risk Averse:

Where are the thinkers, the writers, the innovators in the profession?  If they are out there they are silent!


Learning and Teaching

In the 1980’s Physical Education was the one of the leading subject areas when it came to analysis, experimentation and development of teaching and learning approaches. This focus, exemplified by Muska Mosston’s spectrum of teaching styles , enabled PE teachers in Scotland to reflect upon their practice as never before. 

Yet in the last decade the subject area has been remarkably silent as Assessment is for Learning and other associated developments have been mainly located in other subject areas, and the primary sector in particular.

It would seem to that there is a significant opportunity or the Physical Education profession to drive forward practice by engaging and promoting their pedagogy using the wide range of contexts available to them within the subject.  I see no particular obstruction to the profession taking on a leading role in pedagogical development and sharing this expertise with other teachers and subject areas .

Sport and the Community:

Over the next decade the boundary between school and community will become blurred.  As schools possibly become more accountable to their communities the importance of sport and extra-curricular activity will be increased.  There will be an opporunity for forward looking departments to engage much more closely with community sports groups to provide an integrated sport and physical activity programme which meets the needs of the young people and the community.

Leadership and Management:

In previous generations many Physical Education teachers progressed to management positions either due to their organisational abilities, or through their ability to engage positively with young people which often led to management positions in Guidance.

Yet in the new millennium high quality teaching and learning within the Physical Education environment is an excellent  preparation for developing the skills and aptitudes necessary for a successful leader and manager within the wider world of education. If aligned with an intellectual rigour in terms of reflecting upon that practice and an associated capacity to modify one’s practice accordingly then Physical Education teachers should be well placed to make a significant contribution to the leadership of Scottish Education.


Physical Education teachers should have a well developed knowledge of the stages of child development and be able to relate that to their practice and the associated curricular programme. By sharing their expertise with primary class teachers and working in close association with primary schools it should be possible for PE to be a principal contributor to the concept of a coherent 3-18 educational experience as articulated within Curriculum for Excellence. This aspect has particular resonance in relation to promoting health and well being as a lifelong habit.

The key to capitalising upon this opportunity will be to look beyond what has traditionally been the limits of responsibility for secondary school Physical Education teachers. 

Deep Learning:

There are huge opportunities for the Physical Education profession to enable young people to experience the joy of “deep learning”. Nevertheless, this will require significant change to the current way in which the curriculum is structured and offered in schools.


Physical Education could become much more inclusive of it could shift from it’s current focus on preparing young people for the certificated curriculum.  Make it the goal that every child that comes through your door achieves and feels positively about themselves and their relationship with physical activity and sport and you will have much to share with the rest of the educational world.


Take risks with your practice;  imagine and implement; read, research and reflect;  write and engage in dialogue;  stand up and speak out; but above all make good use of the incredible flexibility which is afforded through a Curriculum for Excellence.

1 thought on “Challenges and Opportunities for the Scottish Physical Education Profession

  1. Don

    Very interesting to hear your thoughts on PE. Couldn’t agree with you more. The HWB agenda is everyone’s responsibility in which PE can play a big part. And through CfE, entitlements for children and young people can be delivered by others who, as you say, have much to offer.

    A long time ago (in 1984, as a Glasgow Secondary Music Teacher) I took a Scottish Volleyball Association qualification provided as a CPD weekly twilight course in Gryffe High School (Strathclyde Region, the ‘old’ Renfrewshire).

    All others on the course were PE teachers, but I was welcomed and didn’t feel out of place. I recall enjoying these sessions immensely, and felt much more confident in supporting kids in the school volleyball club at lunchtimes in King’s Park Secondary School.

    Teachers can (and do) bring so much more to the lives of kids in schools than their subject specialisms and at the same time, enhance their own lives.

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