28/04/20 – Considering the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Children’s Physical Education – Dan Wilson and Grant Huddlestone write

Yorkshire Sport Foundation have worked with The Association for Physical Education and the Youth Sport Trust to produce a series of quality assured short videos to help parents to teach PE at home. Each video has been written, demonstrated and produced by qualified teachers and draws on key skills from the National Curriculum. The videos appear on the UK Government’s list of online education resources for home education and can be accessed at www.tinyurl.com/thisispe or search YouTube and social media for Yorkshire Sport Foundation.

Yorkshire Sport Foundation will be hosting a debate about the above topic from 14.00 on Monday 11th May. Please see the website and social media (links below) for further details.

Twitter and Instagram: @yorkshiresport and Facebook: www.facebook.com/YorkshireSportFoundation

In this post, Dan Wilson of Yorkshire Sport Foundation and Grant Huddleston of Birmingham City University consider the impact of the pandemic on children’s physical education.


The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has seen unprecedented societal change. Enforced behaviour change such as social distancing and the closing of public institutions has resulted in significant alterations to daily life for every British citizen. At the time of writing, UK schools have been shut for four weeks (including the Easter holidays) with a minimum of another three weeks forecast before they open again.

As a result, many organisations and individuals have been quick to provide support for parents who are now responsible for educating their children at home. This rapid new market place has been inundated with a vast array of teaching materials including social media videos, online courses and worksheets, many offered to parents for free for a limited time to help them during the school closure period.

However this poses a challenge to an education sector which has always prided itself on high standards and rigorous quality assurance procedures. While most schools are helping parents by sending planned and structured work home, many parents are turning to unmonitored, simple solutions such as those on social media, to provide an education for their children. In an attempt to ease the pressure on teachers on providing materials quickly, many schools are also recommending these resources without any of the due diligence one would usually expect from a world-leading education system.

Viewing this new challenge through the lens (Brookfield, 1995) of a Physical Education (PE) professional, for most, the unqualified, inexperienced personalities and organisations who are churning out daily ‘support’ for parents has become a major cause for concern for the sector. This is due to a number of reasons highlighted below.

For many years now, PE has fought to demonstrate its importance to the education system and society as a whole. Many adults, when people growing up, may have experienced PE in a negative manner and have since viewed the subject as one to avoid due to the learned helplessness (Martinek, 1994) experiences of, for example, running around school playing fields in a vest and shorts, parading as cross country training or by being picked last in team sports and standing around, not knowing what to do. These types of examples (and more) were so accurately portrayed in the film ‘Kes’ in 1969 (IMDB, 2020); demonstrating an overly competitive PE teacher making up for failings during their childhood and delivering a lesson that was not inclusive and was enjoyed by only a small number of the pupils.

PE has developed considerably since then and is now a highly valued subject which, if taught well, can have a major influence on young people’s lives. The subject almost has a monopoly on teaching life-improving qualities such as team work, resilience, mental strength and socialisation, not to mention the fundamental movement skills of agility, balance and coordination (all combined to create a platform to help promote the development of one’s ‘physical literacy’ – Whitehead, 2001). When taught effectively, PE has the ability to develop a pupil’s learning across all domains, inclusive of the psychomotor, affective, social, behavioural, and cognitive domains. However, in order to effectively access these domains, lessons need to be planned and delivered by a qualified professional who knows how to do this.

Moving into the here and now and the situation we currently find ourselves in, teaching and learning has moved towards online methods with parents promoting what they find useful for them and what they can fit in with their new lifestyle. However, as raised earlier, a number of resources being marketed to parents at this time are not quality assured, especially if it has come from a TV personality whose motive is to simply help at this time. What is being seen predominantly is the sole focus on the ‘physical’ and in particular the objective of increasing physical fitness, through participating in exercise workouts. While it is commendable and indeed, should be encouraged, to get children to be more active during this time, physical fitness is not a direct attribute to the PE curriculum. In fact, using the very definitions outlined by the Association for PE (2015, p3) for physical activity and physical education, it is clear that these online workouts would fall under physical activity and not physical education. Key points to take from these definitions include: “Physical Activityis a broad term that describes bodily movement, posture and balance… it also includes indoor and outdoor play, work-related activity, outdoor and adventurous activities, active travel and routine, habitual activities such as using the stairs, doing housework and gardening”, whilst PE is the “planned, progressive learning that takes place in school curriculum timetabled time… involves both ‘learning to move’ and ‘moving to learn’. The context for the learning is physical activity, with children experiencing a broad range of activities, including sport and dance.”

One famous personal trainer in particular claims to be ‘The Nation’s PE Teacher’ and gains hundreds of thousands of views every day on their YouTube channel by performing a series of high intensity interval training (HIIT) work outs in his living room. The impact of this work cannot be understated, as it is highly commendable to get so many families active while raising thousands of pounds for the National Health Service. However, questions must be asked concerning the qualifications that would allow them to teach children and whether the workouts are risk assessed, including whether they are age appropriate, inclusive and progressive. Are they reflective and do they promote individual development? Answering ‘no’ to any of the above could deem these ‘lessons’ to be potentially inappropriate, not promoting any educational outcomes and at worst, unsafe. However, thousands of schools, teachers and parents are promoting it in the belief that this is PE.

Solely instructing fitness in PE can be seen as akin to only teaching measurement in Maths or just learning about the British Isles in Geography. Quennerstedt (2019) talks about the importance of reclaiming the art of teaching in PE, by promoting “being educative and making judgements about what to bring to the educational situation”. Whilst the current situation is difficult and different to any that has ever been experienced, the educational element must remain. A sentiment supported in the recent podcast by Susie Stevens (CoachPatChat, 2020), highlighting the importance of promoting the ‘e’ [education] in PE, whilst raising concerns of the promotion of HIIT sessions as a replacement for PE lessons in New Zealand.

In regards to England, The National Curriculum (2013) describes PE as a subject that:

“…inspires all pupils to succeed and excel in competitive sport and other physically-demanding activities. It should provide opportunities for pupils to become physically confident in a way which supports their health and fitness. Opportunities to compete in sport and other activities build character and help to embed values such as fairness and respect.”

In terms of the subject content at Key Stage 2, there is not a single reference to the improvement of physical fitness. Fitness videos on their own fail to help children to develop any of the skills imperative to improving an all-round development of the self through physical education. As stated previously, teaching PE effectively can cover all domains of learning. By incorporating the outcomes from the KS2 PE curriculum. Examples of where the domains fit with the expected outcomes can be seen below:

  • Psychomotor – Pupils should continue to apply and develop a broader range of skills, learning how to use them in different ways and to link them to make actions and sequences of movement.
  • Social/Affective – They should enjoy communicating, collaborating and competing with each other.
  • Cognitive – They should develop an understanding of how to improve in different physical activities and sports and learn how to evaluate and recognise their own success.

In addition to the expected outcomes, there are six areas in KS2 PE that pupils should be taught that are completely overlooked when following these online workouts.

The above skills are essential, not only to daily life (for example negotiating space in a busy supermarket) but for the majority of sports and activities that one may later choose to participate in throughout their life. Research by D. Lange (2019) shows that in the EU, the majority of 25- 39 year old males regularly play sport, while in England, 3.2m adults play a team sport at least twice a month (Sport England, 2018). And the benefits of playing sport aren’t just physical. Many studies show how sport can positively impact on mental health and self-esteem (Street et al, 2007). It is therefore crucial that the full breadth of a holistic, skills and fitness based PE curriculum are delivered consistently through a young person’s time at school.

Of course very little of the myriad of other content available to teachers has been quality assured either and yet it continues to grow at an alarming rate. With teachers and parents under great pressure and stress at this time, who would blame them for turning to something that’s free and simple to occupy children for a few weeks while schools are closed? But this is not the school holidays and learning still needs to take place. Otherwise the legacy of this period will be a generation of children that have a three month knowledge gap (at least) and are playing catch up for the rest of their lives. They may lack the fundamental skills required to take up sport or engage in physical activity in later life, and not just the physical skills, but the confidence and resilience to initiate and continue activity when challenges are faced.

Never has the message to remain active been louder and stronger from the Government as physical activity is essential for good physical and mental health. Both of these are of critical importance during a time of international crisis. Children should be encouraged to move more and sit less, particularly as the temptation of screens and social media becomes ever stronger and more manipulative. So this is not to say that copying fitness trainers and professional dancers for half an hour a day is wrong. It is just not a PE lesson; just like an artist, showing children how to draw a penguin live on Facebook is not Art and should not be referred to as such.

Teaching is a highly qualified profession and teachers understand the crucial role they play in the social and cognitive development of children and young people. It is an evidence-based profession, where study and research influences the practice a teacher carries out. To be a teacher, there are set teacher standards that they must meet, whilst completing study at level 6 or 7 in initial teacher education, in order to gain ‘qualified teacher status’. Whilst much of the holistic work a teacher would usually undertake in the classroom must now be devolved to parents at this time, the true breadth and depth of the National Curriculum should still be constructed and shared by teachers.

If parents are comfortable now with their children being ‘taught’ PE by adult personal trainers then should we expect accountants, actors and scientists to populate our schools once social distancing measures are relaxed, with all qualified teachers joining what’s already likely to be a very long queue at the job centre?


Yorkshire Sport Foundation have worked with The Association for Physical Education and the Youth Sport Trust to produce a series of quality assured short videos to help parents to teach PE at home. Each video has been written, demonstrated and produced by qualified teachers and draws on key skills from the National Curriculum. The videos appear on the UK Government’s list of online education resources for home education and can be accessed at www.tinyurl.com/thisispe or search YouTube and social media for Yorkshire Sport Foundation.

Yorkshire Sport Foundation will be hosting a debate about the above topic from 14.00 on Monday 11th May. Please see the website and social media for further details.


Dan Wilson
Dan held teaching and local authority education consultancy posts for 12 years before moving in to the sport sector with Yorkshire Sport Foundation, one of the 42 Active Partnerships across England. After leading the PE and School Sport team since 2014 he is now the Director of Development, overseeing the communities, children and young people, workforce and clubs areas of the charity. Dan co-designed the ground breaking ‘Creating Active Schools Framework’ and co-authored a paper discussing its design and influence for the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity.

Grant Huddlestone
Grant has been involved in Initial Teacher Education since 2017. He leads and delivers physical education and professional studies modules within both undergraduate and postgraduate routes for Primary and Early Years Education and Secondary Education. Grant has recently become course leader for the undergraduate secondary education course. He supports a large number of partnership schools in and around the Birmingham area.

  1. Association for PE (2015) Health Position Paper. October 2015.
  2. Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a critically reflective teacher. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
  3. CoachPatChat (2020) Episode 27: Susie Stevens. Available at: https://anchor.fm/coachpatchat/episodes/Episode-26-Susie-Stevens-ed269l
  4. IMDB (2020) Kes (1969). Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064541/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1
  5. Lange Distribution of frequency of how often people exercise or play sport in the European Union (EU) in 2017, by age group and gender. Statista.com; 2019
  6. Martinek, T. J. (1994) Learned Helplessness in Physical Education: A Developmental Study of Causal Attributions and Task Persistence. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 13 (2), 108.
  7. Quennerstedt, M. (2019) Physical education and the art of teaching: transformative learning and teaching in physical education and sports pedagogy. Sport, Education and Society, 24 (6), 611–623.
  8. Sport England (2019) Active Lives Survey, 2018-19.
  9. Street, James and Cutt (2007) The Relationship Between Organised Physical Recreation and Mental Health. Health Promotion Journal of Australia.
  10. Whitehead, M. (2001) The Concept of Physical Literacy. European Journal of Physical Education, 6 (2), 127-138.

4 comments

  1. A great paper that exemplifies how sector partners have worked together to exemplify what is learning in PE in the home setting. However, it would have been good to see the four aims of the NC PE stated especially as the the fourth aim is to ‘ lead healthy active life styles which needs to be defined so as to not confuse parents and teachers. Education through the physical domain is wider as per the afPE definitions , than school sport and physical activity and is the umbrella under which other aspects emanate. Thank you for highlighting the issues that are facing our great Pedagogists if we end up with a curriculum that focuses on fitness only, the loss of the wider outcomes will be phenomenal. We should be undertaking daily physical activity that is age related and relevant plus high quality PE.

  2. 1. Agreed with regard to the importance of physical education contributing to all three domains in which chidlren learn and grow – not just skills.
    2. Agreed with regard to fitness – there is no mention of this in the national curriculum yet many schools want to test young children’s fitness as part of PE assessment – unreliable, invalid and irrelevant.
    3. What are the six areas that should be taught in KS2 that you refer to?

  3. I think this paper sums up the sentiment discussed in various forums regarding the concerns of fitness related sessions being promoted as “PE” and it exemplifies the true understanding of what domains “true” PE should influence and what impact available resources have upon parents knowledge and capability to provide quality P.E. experiences for children. When I think about considering the full impact of the Covid -19 Pandemic on Children’s Physical Education, another major influence is the impact of the home environments themselves. I think the impact of socio-economic deprivation which will affect children’s development in all academic subjects, including P.E. will be the greatest influence upon the differences in children following the pandemic.

  4. I think what is particularly worrying is the promulgation of these online fitness sessions as physical education by those within the education sector. It is completely understandable that parents will use easy-to-access tools that help to keep their children active and occupied under such stressful conditions. However, those within education should recognise that copying is a very basic level of learning and more effective learning requires guided questioning, reflection, analysis, evaluation, decision-making etc. to enable learners to understand, apply and transfer knowledge and skills independently. It’s a pity that the language of the previous NC was lost: acquire and develop; select and apply; evaluate. They reinforced the learning in the physical. Those are some of the approaches needed to turn exercise videos into learning tools rather than them being seen as PE lessons as they stand. (I also agree with the need for any activity to be safe, appropriate and inclusive, and for learners to experience a breadth of different types of activities through which to learn.)

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