UKPE Cross-border Learning and Innovation Collaborative

UKPE Cross-border Learning and Innovation Collaborative

Making space for interdisciplinary research, dialogue, and collaboration in Physical Education and Health and Wellbeing

How health(y) is physical education? Examining discourses of health in physical education curricula across the UK

Over the past few years, as a team we have developed an interest in, and begun to explore, the nature of the four physical education (PE) curricula of the UK (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). Through this, we have learned that while these curricula have many things in common, they are also different in many ways – and it is in these differences that we see some great opportunities for curriculum learning. While not the focus of this particular blog, more on the similarities and differences between the PE curricula of the home nations of the UK can be found in our first collaborative paper (Gray et al., 2021).

One of the areas we have been drawn towards through this work is the concept of ‘health and well-being’ and how it is understood and positioned within each PE curriculum. As a group of academics, we believe that PE has an important role to play in supporting young people’s health and well-being, and so we were keen to explore how this is achieved within each UK country – or at least, how it is intended to be achieved – and how this might be similar or different across contexts. Consequently, we carried out a critical discourse analysis of the four PE curricula across the UK, specifically focusing on the way in which health and well-being is conceptualized and what this might mean for both teachers and learners. Subsequently, we considered what could be learned from this cross-border comparison both within the UK and beyond.

Within this blog, we seek to highlight some of the findings from our second collaborative paper (Gray et al., 2022) which focused on examining discourses of health in PE curricula across the UK. In particular, we wish to draw attention to the complexity of the health and wellbeing landscapes within UK PE curricula, which we ourselves found difficult to navigate. Indeed, on examining curriculum documents for the four home nations, we found that there were different and sometimes changing conceptualisations – both within and across curricula. For example, in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, there is reference to a holistic, strengths-based discourse of health and wellbeing within curriculum documents as well as a discourse linked to public health goals related to increasing and monitoring physical activity. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, these conceptualisations shift across different levels of the curriculum, while in Wales, although we do not see the same shifts across age groups, the situation remains complex, as teachers have to carefully consider how they work with all five Statements of What Matters. The PE curriculum in England was the exception within our analysis, with little reference to discourses of health within it beyond one of the overarching aims of PE being to ensure that all young people ‘lead healthy, active lives’.

Navigating, interpreting and enacting curricula is complex, and some have suggested that the challenges associated with this task can lead to a form of paralysis, where teachers resort to ‘practice as usual’ (Petrie et al., 2021). Within PE, this can mean narrow and deficit approaches, such as ‘fitness for sport’ or ‘physical activity for physical health’. These approaches can lead to practices that encourage young people to measure their health, make the ‘right’ decisions and develop a ‘healthy’ body. While this might be relevant for some, we argue that this is challenging and/or irrelevant for others, particularly those young people who find it difficult to make what are seen as the ‘right’ choices within their personal, social and cultural contexts.

Engaging in this analysis has been an interesting process; one through which we have come to appreciate the importance of discourse within curriculum and the challenges that teachers might face in reading and interpreting curriculum discourses. While future PE curricula might consider more carefully how the concept of health and well-being is presented – through discourses and throughout curriculum – we also hope that comparative work and cross-border learning might encourage PE teachers to read and engage with their own curriculum in a more critical way. In learning about ‘other’ curricula, PE teachers might begin to view their own curriculum differently, challenge existing ideas, and develop a consistent, holistic and strengths-based approach to teaching health and wellbeing.

Authors: Gray, S., Hooper, O., Bryant, A., Hardley, S., Sandford, R., Aldous, D., Stirrup, J., and Carse, N.


Gray, S., Hooper, O., Hardley, S., Sandford, R., Aldous, D., Stirrup, J., Carse, N., Bryant, A.S. (2022). A health(y) subject? Examining discourses of health in physical education curricula across the UK. British Educational Research Journal.

Gray, S., Sandford, R., Stirrup, J., Aldous, D., Hardley, S., Carse, N. R., Hooper, O., & Bryant, A. S. (2021). A comparative analysis of discourses shaping physical education provision within and across the UK. European Physical Education Review.

Petrie, K., Pope, C. & Powell, D. (2021). Grappling with complex ideas: physical education, physical literacy, physical activity, sport and play in one professional learning initiative. The Curriculum Journal, 32 (1), 103–117. DOI: 10.1002/curj.82


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