In the latest in our UCFB In Focus series, Dr. Gerald Griggs, head of academics at UCFB Etihad Campus, lays out the purpose of Physical Education in the curriculum and reveals how it has developed since the beginning of the 20th century.

Gerald has worked in education for over twenty years and brings a wealth of higher education experience to UCFB. He is a globally recognised figure in the field of primary physical education and to date has published four books and over thirty international peer reviewed journal articles.  

During a recent UCFB Taster Day, I asked prospective BA (Hons) Physical Education students what they thought was the purpose of the subject in school and how they might defend the subject if a head teacher wanted to drop Physical Education from the school timetable. Impressively, responses were many and varied and when discussed, the conclusions reached show that Physical Education simply means different things to different people.

To those unfamiliar with academic literature surrounding Physical Education this conclusion is often a surprise, but even the most basic forms of analysis reveal that the nature of Physical Education meets the criteria for that of an essentially contested concept. What I mean by that is that there are no agreed definitions of what Physical Education is about and that at any one time ‘schools of thought’ or fads or fashions are capable of influencing its development.

What the answers from these prospective Physical Education students also revealed was that their ideas of why the subject was important had their reasons located within three specific fields: sport, education and health. From country to country and from era to era the dominance of one field compared to another can vary. The key explanation for this variation is that at any one time a culture becomes seduced by different texts or arguments and thus the power balance shifts. Let’s look at gymnastics as a micro example of these influences to help understand the point.

In the UK, gymnastics has long been part of Physical Education – or Physical Training as it was called at the start of the 20th century. The main influence at that time came from health, and gymnastics was about the development of healthy bodies and adopting good posture. This view held sway for the first half of the century until a more education based system became prevalent. Here activities became classified and a movement vocabulary became widespread (e.g. rolls, balances, travels, jumps). Though these two perspectives still have resonance and relevance, sport has held the dominant position for most of the last 50 years in UK culture. In this environment excellence, competition and scoring is prized and movements are prescribed and replicated, e.g. handspring vault. Teaching styles tend to be very direct with those in charge telling students what to do and getting them to practice again and again.

What this example shows clearly is the contested nature of Physical Education and how even a curriculum fixture like gymnastics can be used for different purposes. This then throws up a whole range of questions about what should even be included and why.

So the next time you play, teach, observe or hear about an activity such as gymnastics or even football being delivered in Physical Education – ask yourself what it’s for and why is it there? Would anyone miss it if it wasn’t? What might you include instead? Though these questions may not lead to any definitive answers, it should help you to focus on where you stand, and more importantly why.

Read more from the In Focus: The UCFB Thought Leadership Series