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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

Moving PE Forward in Northern Ireland – blog by primary PE teacher Chris Wilde

In this fifth blog of the series, Chris talks about PE in Northern Ireland, highlighting some of the challenges and his hopes for the future.


Moving PE Forward in Northern Ireland


My name is Chris Wilde, a primary school teacher, PE lead, PE consultant and general PE advocate. Originally from England, I moved to Northern Ireland at the end of 2014 after getting married. Over the last two years I have campaigned for change in the way that PE is perceived in Northern Ireland and have worked closely with a number of stakeholders.


I was lucky enough to be involved in a series of events as part of the UKPE Cross-border Learning and Innovation Collaborative. I wanted to learn about PE in other contexts, whilst sharing my views on our current situation in Northern Ireland. I have found this type of discussion to be so valuable during my ‘PE journey’ – I have met some wonderful people over the last two years via different mediums including face-to-face, online meets, phone calls, Twitter exchanges – reading, listening, discussing, learning – and these workshops have been crucial to my understanding of PE in a wider context.


Reflecting on these workshops has cemented my growing concerns that Northern Ireland has become isolated in the world of PE. PE does not seem to be valued in schools as much as the other Home Nations, particularly in primary schools. The Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) released a ‘Thematic Evaluation of Physical Education in Primary Schools’ in October 2022. Though the ETI acknowledged existing good practice in the delivery of PE across the primary school sector they stated, ‘The learning provision, however, too often comprises discrete sessions that do not take sufficient account of their developmental progression over time, across all elements of the statutory PE curriculum. Consequently, there are a number of system-wide issues that need to be addressed.’


Although my experience of secondary PE in Northern Ireland is limited, my perception is that PE is perhaps too focused on learning sports, and potentially, (in some contexts) somewhat elitist. Curriculum objectives should provide opportunities to connect with learning for life and work but, perhaps due to the competitive nature of grammar schools, there seems to be an over-emphasis on developing physical performance and competition. For context, Northern Ireland is the only nation of the UK to maintain a selective secondary schooling system for state education, with 43% of children attending a grammar school, compared to 25% in England. There are no selective schools in

Wales and Scotland (Education Policy Institute – A comparison of school institutions and policies across the UK, 2021).


During our discussions during the UK PE workshops, we chatted about how one of the aims of the English curriculum was to ‘excel’ at sport and some of the secondary PE teachers in attendance were critical of this approach. Importantly, this focus on performance is not the case everywhere. I learned from the workshops, for example, the new Curriculum for Wales, presents a broader view of learning, and so teachers are encouraged to focus on pedagogy (rather than developing sports performers).


For me, PE is one of the most, if not the most important subject on the primary curriculum. PE is the only subject that contributes to the education of the whole person, and holistic development of the child is possible through a quality PE programme, focusing on the development of children’s physical skills, as well as their cognitive and affective skills. An extension to this is my belief therefore that PE is for everyone. It should be enjoyed by all; all pupils should have the opportunity to be successful within the subject and all success should be celebrated. Every child should feel valued. Attitude and progress should be rewarded, not just performance and ability. Why? Because we want to establish and nurture the foundations of lifelong participation in physical activity.


As I look to the future, I hope that we can follow the growing examples of our UK neighbours and remember the ‘Education’ in Physical Education, and explore how our PE curriculum and pedagogical approaches can support the learning and holistic development of all our pupils. In the primary sector – I especially hope leaders and other stakeholders focus on the next steps outlined in the ETI’s Thematic Evaluation. For example, a review of the flexibility, breadth and balance of current curricular provision is warranted, alongside developing a vision in all schools for the purposeful implementation of the PE curriculum. Teacher development should also be addressed through, for example meaningful CPD and ITE provision, to ensure that all pupils have access to suitably knowledgeable, skilled and confident teachers to lead PE in schools. Finally, deficiencies in PE facilities and resource must be addressed to ensure that all pupils have access to at least two hours a week of high-quality PE.


Whatever the future holds for PE in Northern Ireland, I’ll continue to follow three key principles in my pursuit to move PE forward: my belief that PE is for all, the importance of the ‘E’ in PE, and the impact of discussion and collaboration with colleagues across the UK and beyond – all helping to create the very best possible learning experiences for all of our pupils in Northern Ireland.

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