Physical Education Essays – Pupil Participation

Pupil Participation during Physical Education Classes.

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Abstract: The aim of the following study is to examine the level of pupil participation in physical education classes in the UK. Although this is in itself not a wholly novel notion, the study of sports participation in contemporary British classes is particularly relevant at the current time as the New Labour Government has been more active in the promotion of sports as a cultural tool of social inclusion than any other administration hitherto. It has been almost ten years since the revolution of sport and the sports science in Britain with the formulation of Sport England and its sister bodies marking a watershed in the significance attached to sport in the UK. With schools and the subject of physical education central to the cementation of the government concept, the examination into pupil participation is therefore given added impetus as the next generation of school children will constitute the law?makers of the future. Moreover, with the weight and lifestyles of the early twenty first century British population – specifically the children – increasingly coming under the spotlight, the issue of sports and active involvement in sports will only become more relevant with the passing of time.

The significance of sport in modern life is a widely documented subject that is meted out in real terms in the commercialisation of global sports. In academic circles, the significance of the concept of leisure and games has experienced something of an explosion in the past fifteen to twenty years. Yet until comparatively recently, the importance of sport to children and their development was a woefully neglected topic, going against the fundamental experiences of early life that patently revolve around games, sports and teams – an ingrained desire to participate in sport that, according to Dennis Brailsford (1992:1), harks back to our earliest beginnings as a species.

“The earliest stages of sport – its anthropology… an instinctive urge to run, to race, to throw, to dance and to compete, is taken for granted, particularly among the young, and it is important to remember that in those distant days of short lives most populations were young.”

The subject of youth sports participation within the context of the UK has been further hampered by the traditional spectres of colour and class. Until recently, physical education and the cultural installation of discernibly sporting values were deemed to be topics that resided specifically within the domain of the more privileged classes. Historically, private and tuition fee schools traditionally spent up to fifteen hours per week on physical education classes within school time with an additional ten hours available after school to the sporting high achievers. State schools, on the other hand, have historically devoted far less attention to physical education with some schools allocating no time to sports and fitness education. This is the reason behind the discrepancy between the social classes of professional footballers and the social background of sportsmen who play the traditionally elitist sports of cricket, tennis, rugby union and athletics. Footballers, certainly the top tier of footballers in the UK, have usually left school by the age of thirteen to join a professional club because their schools were unable to provide the requisite amount of time on physical education. This, in turn, has affected the management of extra?curricular and community sports clubs, as the determining ethos of profit ensured that external physical education classes were geared towards those who were in a financial and social position in which to enjoy them, as Ian Elvin (1990:6) explains.

“Since the opportunity to participate in sport or recreation requires facilities, the central task of organisations, and associated individuals, is to provide a service which focuses on people and which satisfies need… sports providers must recognise the character of our society and those demographic relationships which could shape or determine areas of growth, or decline, in participation.”

This rigid social aspect of physical education has been a well established, infrequently challenged facet of post?war British institutional life until New Labour came to power in 1996 amid the promise of greater ‘social inclusion.’ This ‘Third Way’ policy has been measured out in health, housing, public funding and, most crucially, education with the emphasis on sports deemed significant enough to involve a wholesale revolution of national sports authorities. The outmoded Sports Council was replaced by ‘Sport England’ and its sister organisations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, in addition to state?sponsored physical education initiatives such as, ‘Game Plan’, and ‘Britain on the Move’. The revamped sports bodies have been overseen by the formulation of a wholly new governmental department: the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. All of the newly established bodies were unanimous in their belief that sport could be used as a launch pad to improve the standard of living and international profile of the UK. Indeed, a 1998 report from the Government’s Policy Action Team 10 (Sport Development Website, first accessed 09.01.06), a think?tank offshoot of ‘Bringing Britain Together’, details the state’s stance concerning the significance of physical education at the end of the twentieth century.

“Because of its wide popularity and inherent properties, sport can contribute to neighbourhood renewal by improving communities performance on four key indicators; health, crime, employment and education.”


Moreover, extensive primary research revealed that a fitter, more physically active population would help to take much of the financial and logistical strain off the National Health Service with the astonishing rise of obesity in British children scaring analysts whose job it is to project into the future. Doctors have warned the government that 20% of boys and 33% of girls in the UK will be officially classified as obese by 2020 unless steps are taken now to tackle the dual problem of a poor diet and severe lack of exercise. In fact, the issue of health is so severe that it is estimated that up to ?2 billion per year is currently lost through ill?health which could be alleviated due to activity and participation in sport.

Yet the significance of physical education studies transcends the issue of health and physical well being, and is located beyond the desire to raise the profile of Britain on the international sporting stage. Physical education is also increasingly seen as a viable binding solution to the many and varied problems pertaining to multiculturalism in the UK. Sport is thus seen as the glue that can hold together the disparate factors of twenty first century Britain, more so in light of the question of young people’s involvement in sport. Children are less aware than adults of the differences pertaining to religion, race and ethnicity with the devotion to the team ethic serving to diminish cultural divides. The physical education and participation debate therefore involves more complex issues than just a desire to achieve an increased level of physical well being in young people; racial and ethnic questions dominate the thinking behind the initiatives such as the government’s ‘Game Plan’, as Dawn Penney (2000:59) suggests.

“Physical education and sport are part of our social and cultural worlds. The relationship is dynamic, with the policies and practices of physical education reflecting, but also clearly shaping (reproducing and/or challenging), the values and interests of broader society.”

As a result, physical education is a highly significant sociological topic, especially so as it is the only school subject dedicated to instilling values relating to participation and inclusion. It should be noted that the government’s attempts to foster greater integration and moral solidarity are not modelled on the American concept of sports whereby college diplomas are disseminated to students who do nothing else but play games. In the UK, the aim is to strike a healthy balance between physical education participation and academic achievement with the benefits of both forming a kind of social synthesis that would be to the ultimate benefit of the entire country on an economic, cultural, social, political and psychological basis.

For all of the above reasons, the issue of pupil participation in physical education is both a highly relevant and well documented area of academic concern. As analysis of the available literature will now make apparent, the upsurge in state interest in the cultural power of sports has risen in tandem with an intellectual boom in the dual topics of sports and society.

Literature Review

The American academic community have pioneered research into the cultural and sociological values of sport and physical education participation since the 1970’s. The catalyst for the increase in interest in the topic was the social ramifications brought about by the Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s whereby liberal policy?makers were appalled at the lack of opportunity for non?white Americans that went far beyond discrepancies in employment and standard of living. Mass participation in physical education was viewed as a feasible way of papering over the cracks of ethnicity in the country. The following excerpt by Dr. Martens (1980:382) from the American Journal of Sports Medicine constitutes the embryonic stage of academic interest in sports participation in young people with the accent firmly placed on the sociological benefits of participation in a multicultural society torn apart by racial and ethnic divides.

“Improving the quality of youth sports programmes is not a panacea to the nation’s problems: it will not significantly reduce crime, inflation, poverty or disease. But we do know that sports are an important part of many children’s lives, helping influence their socialisation into adulthood. If we can help youngsters know the joy of sports, the benefits of a physically active life, and come to know themselves as worthy human beings, we may indeed be making a significant contribution to preventative medicine.”

American literature has thus bequeathed the foundations of sports participation studies with the publication of Loy, Kenyon and McPherson’s, Sport, Culture and Society in 1981 representing a landmark in the symbiosis of sports and sociological studies. After extensive primary source research they concluded that (1981:214) the physical education process is a key factor in the sociological growth of children as a collective and cohesive generation, backing up the earlier US theories relating to the psychological benefits of young people’s involvement in sports.

“Socialisation via play, games and sport is a complex process having both manifest and latent functions, and involving functional and dysfunctional, intended and unintended consequences.”


The first major British studies into the effects of physical education were conducted during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and they centred heavily upon the effect sport had upon the physical and mental processes of growing up, which had hitherto been largely ignored by the mainstream academic community. Literature has tended to be of an accumulative nature, involving a cross?section of essays by leading sports analysts who were able to offer a panoramic view of the tapestry of physical education participation, which is such a diverse topic. Edited books have thus been the most common means of disseminating ideas relating to sport in Britain.

Analysis followed on from the pioneering work conducted across the Atlantic concentrating on the positive effects that physical education could have upon multiculturalism. For instance, Jarvie’s 1991 study entitled, Sport, Racism and Ethnicity, exposed the fallacy that physical education offered a sanctuary of meritocracy whereby talent was supposed to be the primary mode of sporting selection, a myth that Maguire (1991:94) exposed.

“Sport has long been associated with a myth that it offers an avenue of social mobility for socio?economically deprived groups. Social mobility of this kind seemingly results from either ‘contest’ or ‘sponsored mobility’.”

Race and ethnicity remained the dominant theme for the study of sport in England during the 1990’s, coinciding with a desire to decrease the trend of secularisation prevalent since 1945. MacClancey’s collection of essays on the subject titled, Sport, Identity and Ethnicity (1996) continued with the theme of physical education participation and the formation of cultural consensus, deducing that sport was a key factor in the formation of social and cultural identity, as the following remark (1996:2) suggests.

“Sports are vehicles of identity, providing people with a sense of difference and a way of classifying themselves and others.”

Arguably the most important British study has been John Kremer, Karen Trew and Shaun Ogle’s 1997 collection, Young People’s Involvement in Sport. Certainly in terms of the dissertation at hand, this is the most relevant literature available as it offers analysis into school and extra?curricular participation as well as ethnic and gender divides that, as will be shown, are the most obvious obstacles to greater integration in physical education. Young People’s Involvement in Sport in all but one instance takes data as its starting point, highlighting the discrepancies between various modes of research. This, in turn, has meant that the book was one of the first pieces of sports literature to move away from theory into practice, so as to ascertain whether sport really could make a difference to the psychological (as well as physical) well being of young persons’ lives. The significance of motivation and psychological imperatives is likewise underscored during the work conducted by Biddle, Sallis and Cavill, entitled, Young and Active? Young People and Health Enhancing Physical Activity: Evidence and Implications, published by the Health Education Authority. Later UK studies such as that conducted by Horne, Tomlinson and Whannel (1999:144) followed on from the work of Kremer, Trew and Ogle by focusing heavily on the issue of physical education participation in young people where sport necessarily adopts a stance of reduced significance in comparison to adulthood.

“Adults are no longer in a formative stage of development (a particular view of socialisation) and that adult lives are so complex that the effects of sport participation are minimal compared to the socialisation effects of other experiences.”

Contemporary academic literature has increasingly focused on this ‘formative’ stage of human development. However, it appears that the basis for academic research into the topic has recently hit an impasse whereby there exists a greater need for research into the reality behind the rhetoric – to see whether pupil participation in physical education classes has indeed increased in the wake of New Labour’s recreational revolution. Official, state sponsored studies have consequently formed the backbone of data research into the real-term effects of policy?makers in Westminster conducting extensive research in primary and secondary schools, out?of?school clubs and regional sports governing bodies. Private think tanks and public information authorities such as MORI have also provided extensive research into a physical education participation in the nation’s youth.

The beginning of the twenty first century can therefore be seen as the optimum moment for analysis into sports participation in Western culture, constituting the cusp of a wave of cutting edge academic discourse. Utilising this plethora of official research in addition to the wealth of independent academic studies carried out in the field of pupil participation in physical education classes, methodology must naturally delve into these resources at its disposal in order to depict an accurate account of contemporary sports education in Britain.


Like all methods of qualitative and quantitative research methodology into both education and sports is open to vast discrepancies in information bequeathed, involving a range of possible interpretations into physical education participation levels. Data obtained through numerically monitoring participation levels is open to vast fluctuations relating to what time of the year a survey is commissioned and questionnaires are so broad based as to pose analytical problems in themselves. This, in turn, makes attempts at comparative research inherently problematic as what constitutes a method of research in one country necessarily appears different to a method of research in another country. Likewise, from region to region within the same national borders, huge discrepancies are often apparent due to different practices and cultures and, in the wake of New Labour’s policy of devolution, the different countries that make up the UK are subject to alternative education authorities, different school holidays and a non?uniform approach to physical education participation. Indeed, a recent, we’ll funded research campaign by the Australian Government into sports participation in young people concluded that standard methodology posited more questions than it answers. The National Centre for Culture and Recreation Statistics (NCCRS) commissioned a study in April 2001 to compare young people’s involvement in physical education – analysing a cross section of children from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Finland and the UK. Their findings (Australian Bureau of Statistics Website, first accessed 27.02.06) underscore the need for uniformity in the establishment of methodology relating to young people and physical education.

“The methodology employed can influence the participation rates that are obtained. For example, the New Zealand survey was voluntary and a relatively low response rate of 65% was achieved. By comparison, the response rate for the Canadian survey was 80%, while for the Australian survey it was over 90%. Consequently, the relatively low response rate in the New Zealand survey may have led to an overstatement of the participation rate for that country.”

Another area of contention pertaining to analysis of children’s participation in sports relates to whether the involvement took place in school time or during extra curricular physical education classes. The difference is more than one of tuition. Participation in school time sporting activities can be tracked and monitored by publicly funded agencies and authorities while extra curricular modes of physical education instruction are at the whim of private sports bodies, local sports clubs and regionally organised out?of?school activities. For the purposes of this study, pupil’s involvement in official, school orientated physical education is the primary area of concern, although the grounds for methodological misconception remain fertile.

The problem of a definition of what constitutes a child is one of the more obvious areas of uncertainty, even within a single nation. While some studies indicate that a child can be any age under sixteen, other studies choose just primary school pupils or secondary school pupils only, which clearly affect the significance of the data retrieved. It is an important point: the realities of age difference between, for instance, young children and teenagers are issues that transcend sports participation. Consensus seems to signal that younger children are more inclined to participate more fully in physical education classes as the experience of sports participation remains on an informal, non?competitive basis during the early years of schooling. Achievement becomes more important than enjoyment which, as Diane Gill (1986:59) explains, inherently affects participation.

“Competitiveness is the tendency to strive for success in sport competition. It is clear that sport participants differ in competitiveness. Some individuals always seem to be at their best in competition, whereas others seem to do everything wrong.”

Thus, a study that concentrates on children aged five to ten is always going to yield different results to a study that targets thirteen to eighteen year olds or, alternatively, one which analyses the full spectrum of the schooling experience. Methodology in the context of young people’s involvement in sport is further hampered by the obvious, insipid divide between boys’ and girls’ specific relationships with physical education, which has created the myth of gender advantage in sport. Though contemporary academic studies and surveys are increasingly conscious of the neglect displayed towards young females’ participation in sport, the research committed to girls is comparatively far less than the literature and surveys conducted concerning boys, as Michael A. Messner (2002: Introduction xxii) details.

“A generation ago, sport was a core, patriarchal institution in a larger, contested gender order. Now, with the dramatic growth of girls’ and women’s athletics participation, sport no longer simply or unambiguously plays this reactionary role in gender relations. Sport is now more internally contested.”

More than any other field of research within the broader study of sports participation, the methodology relating to girls’ involvement in physical education is an area of social academia that will completely transform itself in the coming years. Although girls remain less active in terms of sports participation, the increasing levels of activity suggest that parity, unthinkable twenty years ago, might be attained with regards to the sporting gender debate. Methodology must take into account this unprecedented level of increased participation within such a large sector of the young female population and view research conducted over ten years ago as relatively obsolete.

In addition, it is important not to overlook the issue of race and ethnicity regarding the methodology of evaluating pupil participation in sport. This is true regarding every multicultural society in the West where a cultural divide has bequeathed vastly differing views regarding sport and the social benefits of participation. In the UK, the main cultural concern has been the lack of participation of South Asian children, particularly those children whose parents were not born in Britain. Pupil participation is markedly lower in South Asian children, exacerbated by excessive stereotyping that, at its most crude, sees Indians encouraged to play cricket while Europeans are more likely to play football.

“Recent Sport England national statistics confirmed that people of South Asian origin have markedly lower participation rates than other minorities or the indigenous population…It has to be remembered that first generation minorities settling into a new land and new communities worry first about obtaining employment and housing; the second generation strive to achieve a good education for their children; often it is only the third generation who seek to adopt or adapt in cultural terms. Many of the South Asian groups settled later than others and may not have passed through these transitions.” (Michael Collins, 2003:75)

Thus, methodology has failed to take into account subtle cultural and sociological issues within the youth sporting debate and this methodological anomaly between ethnicities must be acknowledged. Less topical concerns such as Islamic participation in sports during the holy month of Ramadan (that forbids the consumption of food and drink during daylight hours for a full calendar month) should also be borne in mind, especially in the context of inner city British physical education activities. Furthermore, religious schools themselves serve to perpetuate the cultural divide between ethnic children by adopting stereotypical views relating to physical education and (especially) the role of girls within it.

The final area of methodology that poses a potential problem for sports and sociological analysts alike is the source of the information regarding surveys, questionnaires and queries – the heartbeat of methodological research. Hitherto, research into school-based physical education activities has largely been compiled without input from the children themselves, certainly not the younger children, those who are the most exposed to the formative stages of sports development. This would pose no problem if participation was simply a case of calculating numbers in a class room. Yet participation involves so much more than merely turning up; it involves a more intangible feeling of taking part that cannot be quantified without recourse to the participants themselves – in this case, the children. The issue is, however, one which is likely to be redressed during the coming decade with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport recognising that the input of children (classified as those aged one to sixteen) is imperative if physical education is to attract the interest of those groups of children – both male and female – who are not naturally inclined to participate in sports in school. With this in mind, the Government established the ‘Every Child Matters: Change for Children’ national scheme (website first accessed 28.02.06) in November 2005 with a view to building a more accurate methodological consensus in terms of children’s participation in sport, leisure and culture activities.

“An ongoing dialogue with children and young people is important to ensuring that policies and services are effectively evaluated and can evolve as necessary. Involving children and young people also helps to develop new skills and promote links with communities.”

However, the decision to incorporate children in the research process is a discernibly future trend. Much of the contemporary methodology has involved parents and the educational authorities and an ambiguous definition of what constitutes both a child and the concept of participation in sport, though the main research data used for the results in this study did include the children themselves, thus offering a more accurate report of PE participation at the start of the twenty first century.

Results and Discussions

Results of research conducted into pupil participation in physical education reveal a curious mixture of the perpetuation of stereotypical trends relating to gender, race and class as well as definitive signs of a progressive, more inclusive contemporary leisure and sporting environment. Across the board, though, the increase in physical education participation amongst Britain’s children has seemingly been verified. The most large?scale research conducted so far this century has been the 2003 study conducted by the MORI Sports Research Unit in conjunction with Sport England, involving over three thousand young people (classified as primary and secondary school children in between the ages of six and sixteen) as well as the PE teachers themselves. Its specific emphasis upon young people’s involvement in sport makes it a highly relevant source for the study at hand, as the results, highlighted below (MORI Website, first accessed 27.02.06), detail.

“The comprehensive survey on children and PE – Young People and Sport in England 2002 – follows previous research carried out in 1999 and 1994. More than 3000 children and young people aged six to 16 were surveyed in over 200 primary and secondary schools in England. They were asked about their participation in sport during school lessons and their leisure time, their attitudes to being active and which activities and sports they enjoy. The survey also includes the view of teachers about PE and sport in their school.”

Nearly all of the young people in question reported some kind of participation in physical education during school hours, which is in itself a positive sign. The percentage of young people that receive over two hours of PE per week had increased from 33% in 1999 to 49% in 2002, constituting a significant, fundamental shift in school policy. A marked increase in competitive sport was also detected with a quarter of all school children interviewed playing against other local sports club in official competitions, moving up from 19% in 1994 to 25% in 2005. Moreover, the government’s own individual annual survey into the progress being made by New Labour concepts such as Sport England backs up independent findings by data providers like as MORI, as The Guardian’s Liz Clark (2005:9) underscores.

“Schools in England have met government targets in PE a year early, according to official figures published today. Some 75% of secondary school pupils working in sports partnerships take part in at least two hours of school sport each week, according to the results of the government’s annual school sport survey. It also showed that participation in primary schools had significantly increased.”

Participation in primary schools in fact rose from 52% in 2003/4 to 64% in 2004/5, though this falls far short of the wider governmental objectives. The ultimate aim of the government is to achieve a one hundred per cent participation rate for all British schoolchildren by the year 2010 with an interim target of 85% by 2008. An investment of ?1.5 billion over the next five years by way of state sponsored assistance has been promised by Westminster.

However, the undisputed increase in physical education participation in both primary and secondary schools in England should not come as a surprise, certainly not in light of the administrative transformation witnessed since 1996. Rather, results are more significant for the information they reveal about motivation to participate in physical education and the barriers that still exist between sport and even greater rates of sociological inclusion. As touched upon earlier, the introduction of competition in children’s physical education results in a watershed regarding participation levels; as some children increase their level of participation at a competitive level, the less physically blessed children likewise lose interest in the demands of physical fitness.

“Analysis has served to demonstrate yet again the linkages between sport, competition and perceived self?competence. Those who have been afforded opportunities to take part in their chosen activity on a regular basis clearly derive psychological benefit in terms of advanced self?esteem, and are intrinsically motivated to continue to perform.” (Van Wersch, 1997:75)

Those who are adversely affected by sport, manifested in lowered self?esteem and perceived incompetence in comparison to their peers, necessarily lose interest in physical education as a subject worthy of their time. Historically, this has been exacerbated by a breed of PE teacher that turns a blind eye to those children who play truant from physical education classes because of their relative ineptitude at sport. Furthermore, there is an ideological issue that is overlooked by studies that rely heavily upon numerical data as opposed to philosophical questioning. Participation is affected by what Horne, Tomlinson and Whannel (2000:149) call “aversive socialisation,” which affects secondary school children in the formative stage of physical development.

“Since adolescence is a period of attempts at developing autonomy, gaining control of their lives, the majority of young people can get turned off sport. Adult-organised sport can be perceived of as consisting of many ‘degradation ceremonies’ as fun is replaced by performance as a criterion of participation.”

Thus, figures pertaining to older children who show no desire to take part in physical education will do little to encourage these children to participate in sport – either in