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.

Learners Leading Learning: Speaking up for Scottish Education

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Alison Taylor, Principal Teacher and Primary 3 teacher at Stoneyhill Primary School, Musselburgh, takes time out to describe how she gets learners to lead their own learning.

We followed this up with an interview which showed how Alison uses this same approach to promote deep learning in Science.

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Perhaps we do sometimes need to weigh the pig?

“You don’t fatten the pig by weighing it” An evocative phrase used by those who would rightly challenge the concept of over-assessment or too frequent external assessment or inspection. A Head Teacher’s Union leader even described the English Ofsted as the “Office of Pig weighing”. The use of the phrase has taken on a global currency as the following examples demonstrate: Australia; England; USA or see google.

Let me say at the outset that I am uncomfortable with this analogy – children are not pigs – anyway Chris Thorn does a much better critique of the concept than I ever could in his blog post from 2006.

But for the sake of argument let’s just accept the pig weighing analogy and use it to make a point.  The question I’m interested in is whether or not we need external assessment, or testing regimes, earlier than the certificated courses which young people will encounter in S4 and beyond. In the current regime we have National Tests for 5-14. These have undoubtedly had an effect on how, and what, teachers – particularly primary teachers – have taught over the last 20 years.

With the introduction of A Curriculum for Excellence there is a possibility that there will be no nationally recognised testing regime to take its place for children below S4.  Now I know many people see this as a good thing and at first glance it does seem appealing but I really wonder if such a situation provides sufficient leverage in the system to change the way in which we structure and deliver learning and teaching?

In my post on reverse engineering I pondered on the “trickle down” influence or leverage on the curriculum provided by examination requirements. Secondary teachers in Scotland have been encultured into a system which takes account of the “examinable syllabus”. What is it that makes us so confident that we can make literacy and numeracy the responsibility of all in S1 – S3 simply by appealing to the professionalism of teachers? 

My point here is that I feel we do need to introduce some form of summative assessment of literacy and numeracy at the end of S3.  I would suggest that the internal judgements of teachers are complemented by a external test which when combined with the internal assessment provides an accurate judgement about the a young person’s abilities at that time.  I believe the external assessment would fulfil a number of functions:

  1. Validate the judgement of the teachers
  2. Where there is a discrepancy between the internal and extrnal assessment it provides a means of providing an external baseline with which to provide a comparison.
  3. Provides a purpose and motivation for young people to improve their levels of literacy and numeracy.
  4. Provide a useful benchmark for schools to measure their progress.
  5. Provide a useful and validated measure of a young person’s abilities which can be used by parents and employers.
  6. Appeals to what secondary teachers “know”  – i.e. teaching to the test.

Before you leap up and down at that last sentence I believe that many great teachers do teach to the test but they do so in such a way that benefits their pupils. The challenge facing us would be to create a test for numeracy and literacy which made schools teach these core skills across all areas of the curriculum and sought to test them in these self-same contexts.

We certainly don’t want to see an “Office of Pig Weighing” in Scotland but I think I could confidently predict a positive change in the way in which we teach literacy and numeracy in our secondary schools if we grasped the opportunity to create an imaginative testing system which complemented and validated our internal assessments and for which every teacher in the school was accountable – not just the Maths and English teachers. 

TESS Article 12: Giving Up Control

I was chatting recently with a former colleague about “A Curriculum for Excellence“. He has responsibility for developing learning and teaching at his school and was telling me that they are going to give every pupil comprehensive course support materials for each of their certificated subjects – once the course has been completed. The teachers didn’t want to put it out before they taught the course as they wanted to “remain in control”. For me it was a timely reminder about how much work is still to be done in terms of changing our approach to learning.

In the past week I’ve come across three personal examples of how the delivery of learning is changing – firstly, my brother is taking a work related course at St Andrew’s University – he will be following the entire course on-line; secondly, I’ve just started a on-line course to improve my French; and thirdly, I was speaking to the one of my son’s friends who just got a an “A” in one of his Highers and had to teach himself two of the units, which had not been covered by the teacher, by accessing materials available on the web. If these examples seem anecdotal and hardly scientific then I plead guilty but perhaps it is their very ubiquity which lends them weight in supporting a growing realisation that “we” can no longer remain in control of the learning process.

The common arguments against such a phenomenon are that “children can’t learn by themselves” and “You can’t transfer university type learning to a school environment”. However, to accept such statements is to accept the status quo where the learning process is essentially controlled and governed by the teacher – especially in terms of the content, rate of progress and depth of content.

If we are going to change the way in which we work then perhaps we need to destabilise the status quo thereby freeing teachers to adopt different roles and engage learners in learning as opposed to absorbing information?

Keeping this in mind I wonder if David Eaglesham, the General Secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, perhaps provides the catalyst when he said he doubted whether A Curriculum for Excellence could live up to its aims without the provision of curricular resources.

I agree that there is a need to provide resources but I wouldn’t provide them in the form that they have come in the past. My alternative approach would be to create a virtual learning environment for every certificated course provided by the SQA. These course materials could be accessed by students at a place and time of their choosing – I’d like to think GLOW could play an important role here. The key point here is that the materials are for the student – not the teacher.

Over the course of the last year I’ve spoken to senior students from many schools and without exception they all said they would have welcomed the chance to access their entire course on-line. That’s not to say that they didn’t want a teacher but that they wanted their teacher to work in a different way.

So what would be the outcome of such a step – surely it will replace one form of spoon-feeding with another? Well not if we prepare for such a change in a gradual, well managed and progressive manner – the teacher would take on much more of a tutor’s role where students have to use their tutor to expand and deepen their knowledge. In so many ways this ties in with what Jerome Bruner spoke about recently at the Tapestry Conference in Glasgow when he said that educational systems were “too easily routinised” (sic) and that there were too few opportunities for students to “share hypotheses”, “reflect upon alternatives ” or “reflect upon controversy”.

Bruner wants teachers to seek out “inter-subjectivity” (I think I prefer this term to inter-disciplinary) by contextualising their subject within the wider world – but how often do teachers manage to do this in the pressure to get through the content of a course?

Such a shift in the model of certificated course delivery would also influence the type of learner that a young person would need to be before commencing such courses. The requirement for children to be ready to operate as independent, metacognitively aware, and technically able learners will in it’s own way provide further impetus for the radical changes that are required in the first three years of secondary education.

University Challenge


I’ve just had a very positive meeting with some senior colleagues from Queen Margaret University. The new QMU  has just been built in East Lothian and has been named as one of the top 10 modern universities by the Sunday Times Good University GuideIt’s mission statement reads as follows:

To enhance the quality of life and serve communities, through excellence and leadership in vocationally and professionally relevant education, research and consultancy, as a university which is outward looking and committed to innovation, participation and lifelong learning.

In line with that exciting ambition we discussed the possibilities for partnership and soon recognised that the scope was huge and that what we have at present requires greater coordination and strategic direction.

Here are some of the possibilities:

1. Continuing Professional Development for education staff in East Lothian Council through the University’s Centre for Academic Practice and MSc in Prof Ed.

2. Sharing QMU’s  Learning and Teaching strategy to help to develop independent learners by end of S3.

3. Delivery of QMU part-time learning in EL Schools.

4. Creation of virtual and not-so-virtual learning environments for S6 students.

5. Sharing of kit & equipment e.g. chemistry labs.

6. Joint appointments or secondments.

7. Specific projects in areas such as performing arts especially drama, dance, film-making & theatre.

8. Shared utilisation of space in capital projects.

9. Research evidence for ELC meeting single outcome agreement , eg in health.

10. Engaging with the “Curriculum for Excellence” and “More Choices, More Chances” agendas.

We are already planning an exciting conference to be held at the campus scheduled for June 2009 which will involve every new S6 pupil in East Lothian but this just goes to show the incredible potential which exists for partnership events which will benefit both the university and the community of East Lothian.

 Our next step is to organise a high level strategic meeting to examine other partnership opportunities across the Council, beyond education, and to select a small number of initiatives to take forwards in a productive and coherent manner.

 Other suggestions are very welcome.

A Cultural Rucksack?

This morning I met with colleagues from our Cultural Services Department to discuss how we might promote the East Lothian Council’s commitment to:

“Embed Scottish history, culture and heritage throughout school life and make every effort to support Scotland’s languages – both Gaelic and Scots.”

The associated outcome that schools have to work towards is:

“All children and young people will be able to demonstrate an appropriate knowledge of Scottish culture, history and heritage at key stages in their school careers.”

Obviously such an outcome still triggers further questions about what might constitute “appropriate knowledge” and what do we mean by “key stages” but over the next year we will be fleshing this out with the help of staff in schools.

Nevertheless, it does provide a stimulus for schools to begin to try to explore these areas for themselves.

Our discussion this morning focused upon the huge amount of work already going on in schools, which would link, to Scottish culture, history and heritage. The challenge for us is to find a way of tying this together into a coherent set of experiences that will fulfil our desire to give children a robust knowledge of their cultural heritage – without adding yet another layer of the curriculum to schools at a time when we are trying to declutter.

It was during this discussion that I recalled something that one of our quality Improvement Officers had brought back from a study visit to Oslo last year. On her return Valerie Irving had described a wide range of interesting elements of what’s going on in Norwegian education but the item which caught everyone’s imagination was the concept of the “Cultural Rucksack”. This metaphorical construct is used to ensure that children are acquainted with Norwegian Art and Culture and as they go through the education system they collect these experiences and place them in their rucksack.

We wondered this morning of we could establish a Scottish Cultural, History and Heritage “Rucksack” where young people would be entitled to have a number of personal experiences throughout their school career which provided them with a framework upon which they can develop their understanding of their country.

So what might go into such a rucksack? Here are some ideas for starters:

I have visited a Scottish Castle.
I can dance five Scottish dances.
I have attended a Burns Supper.
I can speak some Gaelic.
I have visited a Pictish fort.
I can recite a Scottish poem from memory.
I can cook oatcakes.
I can describe a famous Scottish battle.
I have a favourite Scottish historical character and can tell you all about them.
I can tell you about a former Scottish industry and why it has declined.

These are just a few examples but you can begin to how see we could establish a wider range of learning experiences – in an inter-disciplinary manner – which could help promote a true awareness and appreciation  of their country’s culture, history and heritage. The exciting thing about this approach is that it allows schools to make best use of their local  environment.

Would it work?

“The dialectic of possible worlds”


I felt enormously privileged today to be able to attend the Tapestry Conference in Glasgow to hear Jerome Bruner give a spellbinding performance.

For a man born in 1915 (93 years ago) he displayed humour, warmth and humility which would bely most men half his age – quite aside from his iconic intellect. In what was a wide ranging personal perspective on “A Curriculum for Excellence” he flitted through the decades, continents and historical fugures which whom he has engaged.

The strand to which he kept returning throughout his 50 minutes was the need for teachers to engage children in real thought by encouraging them to challenge and ask the tough questions – not just those which are part of the agreed syllabus.

He urged us to reflect upon controversy through a dialectic:

Dialectic (Greek) is controversy: the exchange of arguments and counter-arguments respectively advocating propositions (theses) and counter-propositions (antitheses). The outcome of the exercise might not simply be the refutation of one of the relevant points of view, but a synthesis or combination of the opposing assertions, or at least a qualitative transformation in the direction of the dialogue.

In contrast to Piaget, Bruner has always fought shy of the stages of development and believes that children of any age can participate in such dialogue to make meaning of their world.

However, it was his phrase “The dialectic of the possible worlds” which struck such a chord with me.  I suppose in my own small way I am trying through this Learning Log to explore opposite worlds.  Through the power of the web it can become a dialectic which leads – at the very least – to a transformation in the direction of my own dialogue.

Given my last post about the Dark Forces – I think it’s vitally important that we encourage and support teachers to explore opposite worlds in terms of their own practice and the nature of the curriculum and then participate in a professional dialogue about these possibilities. Without such a dialogue we are trapped by dependency culture created by centralised teaching programmes of study and curricular materials.

Composite classes – a pressure point


I’ve received number of e-mails this week from parents pleading with me not to establish composite classes in their schools. A composite class is one where a primary school class is composed of children from more than one year group, e.g. P3/4 composite class. 

The common theme in all the e-mails is that if I care about children then I can’t allow this to happen.  I should probably point out at the outset that my own children were taught in composite classes.  On first being notified of compositing I have to admit to being concerned – despite my own experience as an educator. As parents we tend to like the status quo – we don’t like the idea of change – especially change which seems intuitively risky. 

Whilst I understand the reflexive reaction that many parents have towards composite classes the issue often has the potential to whip a storm of fury all based upon the supposition that the quality of education will suffer.  When looked at from a certain perspective you can see how this appears to be a convincing and logical argument – which can be captured as follows:

“Children in non-composite class are all the “same age” and can be more effectively taught by a teacher than a class made of of children from two different year groups.”

However, when one considers the reality of this situation most “normal” classes are made up of children who have an age range of 12 months. Yet given the arbitrary way in which we identify cut off dates for entry to school – its very possible for children who are born days apart to be in separate years groupings.

As I have explored before such  range of ages can mean that in child development terms there can be a gap between children of between 24 – 36 months. Chronological age does not equate to stage of development – any of us who have had our own children can testify to that.

The reality is that a composite class will often have a less of an age range than a “year group class” – as we group the class by birth date, e.g. an age spread of a less than 8 months. 

Yet compositing can also strike fear into some teachers – particularly those who have never taught such a class grouping before.  I recently spoke to very experienced head teacher about this and she told me that there is no more differentiation required in a two year group composite class than there is in a single year group class – in fact because of the closer age range there might even be less. Of course some of our smaller East Lothian schools have composite classes composed of up to four years groups – now that is challenging but as I’ve described before can lead to truly stimulating learning situations.

To return to my e-mail correspondence – I do care about children (that’s why I’m in the job). I know it goes with the territory and it’s why I get paid but people seem to think if they apply enough pressure that they can get more money for their own school.  It’s my job to advocate for all children in East Lothian – not just those whose parents might be able to mount a campaign to change a very fair system for allocating teachers to schools.  The reality is that an average teacher’s salary – with on-costs such a pension etc – is £36,000.  One extra teacher for one school means that this money must be taken from another school (93% of our education budget is devolved directly to schools).

Last point –  no parent has ever complained about compositing once their child has moved into such a class – only before.

Solution Focused Planning


The power of our strategic groups came to the fore this week at our 3 -18 Strategic Learning and Teaching Group.

This group has 25 members who represent a wide cross-section of those of us involved in education in East Lothian.  I know its accepted logic that such a large group can’t operate successfully but it’s the very size of, and representation within the group that actually makes it effective.

We started the meeting reflecting upon the impact of our Learning and Teaching policy in the last year.  By splitting up into groups of 3 we were able to identify a wide range of observable changes in our practice throughout the authority that would evidence our emphasis on learning and teaching.

The second part of the meeting was given over to considering our Service Improvement Plan for the coming session. I showed the group a range of the possible outcomes which we have been exploring.  One of the draft outcomes read as follows:

“All children will achieve Level B in reading by the end of P4, level D by the end of P7, and Level E by the end of S2.”

We discussed the thinking behind this desired outcome and the reaction it might stimulate amongst teachers. The problem lay in the notion of “All” and the idea it just seems to reaffirm a focus on attainment – which many teachers just see as a means of keeping the Authority and HMIe happy – as opposed to helping individual children learn.

I’ve written so many plans for departments, schools and authorities now that I’ve become acutely aware of the dissonance between what the writer of the plan might intend and the perception of the plan by those who have to implement it.

The idea behind the outcome is that we would like every child to be able to read by the age of 9 – at least well enough that their reading ability does not limit their progress in any other area of the curriculum. As we wrestled with the problem of how we might come up with an outcome which was clear, kept our focus on reading, but didn’t antagonise teachers we struck upon a solution. That solution was to take the problem to the teachers – let them know what we wanted to achieve, why it was important, and  some guidance on the characteristics of an outcome – and let them come up with the answer.

The power of this idea is that has so many advantages:

  1. It engages teachers with the rationale of the outcome approach;
  2. It will enable us to generate an agreed outcome which has a wide range of stakeholder ownership;
  3. It will enable us to have the impact we desire, i.e. make reading a central focus of our practice in schools.

It’s only through talking through a problem like this with such a wide ranging group that such solutions can be generated.

Learning experiences – shaping a future


I spent this morning at the Ansel Adams: Celebration of Genius at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh.

I first encountered Ansel Adam’s work a few years ago when I led a party of Dunbar Grammar School pupils to Yosemite Valley where we were “Following in John Muir’s Footsteps” – John Muir was a former pupil of Dunbar Grammar.

In what was a life changing experience I used to get up every morning at 5.30am and watch the sunrise over the Valley.  Looking at Adams’ photographs this morning I was taken back to these special moments. So how does a photographer manage to create such powerful images, which are so much more than photographs?

Perhaps it had something to do with Adams’ childhood and upbringing where he was an unconventional child who was probably dyslexic and hyperactive. His father recognised this and set about educating him at home and providing him with an incredibly rich range of experiences which shaped and nurtured the boy. Ansel Adams described this as follows:

“I often wonder at the strength and courage my father had in taking me out of the traditional school situation and providing me with these extraordinary learning experiences. I am certain he established the positive direction of my life that otherwise, could have been confused and chaotic. I trace who I am and the direction of my development to those years of growing up in our house on the dunes — propelled especially by an internal spark tenderly kept alive and glowing by my father.”

It’s revealing insights like these that confirm for me the need to recognise the importance of learning experiences which extend far beyond our existing perception of what “schooling” should be.