Examining PE as a Subject in Senior Cycle

The recent proposal by Minister for Education & Skills Richard Bruton to introduce two new curriculums on a phased basis for PE in senior cycle is, I believe, completely inappropriate.

By John Demery

The two new curriculums for Physical Education in senior cycle will result in weighting the course content heavily towards theoretical knowledge which will be taught in a traditional ‘chalk and talk’ way and examined in a written exam. Essentially they will be repeating what is being taught in science, and taught in a traditional manner. The 50%-30%-20% marking clearly indicates where the emphasis will be. Needless to say, the students with better academic ability will score higher than the so-called sporty students.

Students with better academic ability will score higher than the so-called sporty students.

In this system, only what can be measured objectively will get into the programme. The subjective observation by the PE teacher, often valued by colleagues and parents, will be difficult to record. Many important aspects will be lost, and in my opinion, if Physical Education goes down this road, the potential of the subject will never be fulfilled.


I am in favour of teachers assessing their students as a means of monitoring the effectiveness of their teaching methodologies. However, the important point is the students should be assessed against themselves, not against the rest of the class and not against an arbitrary national norm.

Students should be assessed against themselves, not against the rest of the class…

Exams as proposed do not take into account physical ability, culture, attitude, relationships within the group, willingness to help and support others, kindness, compassion and many other important personal characteristics. As educators, we should be attempting to develop our curricula to meet individual needs. The proposed changes are the opposite of this theory and are attempting to standardise across the board.

I do not agree with the PE Association which supports the new proposal or with teachers who say it is good and necessary in order to give their subject status in the school in the eyes of management and pupils. If the subject as it currently stands was taught properly, students would be motivated. The PE Inspectorate certainly did not do its job when I was teaching – in 30 years I never had a single visit. I will not say much about in-service training other than that it does not exist, or did not when I was teaching. I know there are many exciting programmes in some schools, shared learning experiences between secondary pupils and elderly, special needs students, blind groups, deaf groups – very valuable learning experiences for the clients, the students and the teachers. Unfortunately teachers tend to work in isolation. Mostly they are not aware of what is being taught or how it is taught in a school just down the road.

PE v Sport – the terminology

There is a lot of confusion around the terms used in relation to Physical Education (PE). These include Physical Activity, Sport and Physical Education, Physical Education, and Extracurricular Activity. These terms are often used in an interchangeable way by commentators, politicians, parents, sporting bodies and educators.

Parents, students and schools may not be aware of the real definition of PE and indeed its role and purpose in education. I want to express here what I believe PE is all about and how in my opinion it is different to Sport.

What is Physical Education?

Physical Education relates to the personal development of all the students in the class. Students are introduced to the activities of the PE programme with a view to providing them with knowledge and experiences that will enable them to make informed decisions and have positive attitudes in the choices they make in school and in later life about their health, fitness, and recreation.

Sport on the other hand is about performance, achievement, developing complex motor skills with the aim of reaching a target. Excellence is the goal. If you do not reach the required target or goal in sport you may be replaced. There is failure! Not so in a PE class. Activities are adjusted to suit the abilities of each student.

The PE lesson should not be used to screen students for competitive sport. It is one of the dangers of the relationship between schools and the local sports club. Some schools use clubs to cover their PE classes and this has the potential to have a negative effect on learning – not reaching standard!

The PE lesson should not be used to screen students for competitive sport.

On the other hand, there is huge potential for a positive role to develop between school and club in an extracurricular situation. Students may be introduced to a sport or an activity through the PE programme that they choose to develop, their needs may be met through competition, through involvement in water sports and the club or group will enable them to pursue these needs.

PE classes should be active, learning through doing, and health related aspects can be taught through active learning as opposed to theory. Certainly, roles can be found to suit students’ interests, such as officiating, refereeing, choreography, and there is also a place for project work. Students develop additional skills by simply engaging in PE.

I am calling on sports clubs and schools to discuss ‘PE or not PE’ – that is a good question to open up a conversation and get a dialogue going. It will create a better understanding of the values and differences between PE and Sport.

PE should start in pre-school

Finally, in my opinion as a PE teacher with 30 years of experience, the right place to start PE is in pre-school. Attitudes and decisions about health, fitness, recreation and diet are already long formed by the time students reach secondary school.

The right place to start PE is in pre-school.

I believe that specialist PE teachers could provide a solid foundation in junior cycle i.e. developing students’ motor skills, hand-eye co-ordination, flexibility, strength, movement experience, exposure to creative dance, aquatic skills, experience of challenge, cooperation and much more. But the joy of movement and the fun of the PE class should begin as soon as a child enters early years’ education prior to primary school.

We have students moving from junior cycle to senior cycle with negative attitudes towards PE. Our young people have serious issues around weight, body image, obesity, mental health, and wellness. If we address these issues early, start PE in pre-school, build through primary cycle into secondary school, we could see meaningful change. This could result in better adjusted, more responsible people – and would actually cost the education and health sectors less.

Long term planning

However all of this would require long-term planning. The question is, are our politicians and public servants up to the challenge of long-term planning and long-term execution of plans?

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