Spoiled much of his real usefulness by hanging back but showed real ability from time to time.

This quote comes from the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s 1957 school report. Specifically, from the section related to his school ‘football career’. The quote and hundreds more like it, come from a small book from which I’ve shamelessly borrowed the title for this week’s blog. This book, published in 2002, sits on the windowsill in our downstairs bathroom but the layer of dust on top of it suggests it hasn’t been read for a while. That said, the idea of “could do better” - coupled with the idea that physical education spoils much of its usefulness by hanging back but shows real ability from time to time – spoke loudly about both the focus of this week’s paper and the bulk of 400+ papers that I’ve explored for this blog. Physical education has potential, but all too frequently fails to deliver on the ambitious outcomes that are set for it.

The headline figures I took form this week’s paper was that less than 38% of the 506 pupils involved in the study reported that “physical education did stimulate them to engage in sports activities out of school.” Given the importance of lifelong physical activity (LLPA) as a desirable outcome of physical education (as reported in last week’s blog) this figure seems worryingly low. Add to that figure the finding that more than 27% of participants felt that “physical education did not stimulate them to engage in sports activities out of school” and we have a subject (in those schools involved in the study) that, at best, “shows real ability from time to time.”

While we shouldn’t generalise beyond the context(s) in which the study was completed, I’m left to wonder what the teachers and departments involved might have done with that information. What would you do if you found that your approach, your curriculum and pedagogy was tagged by 37.6% of participants as a stimulus for out of school sport activity? Would you rejoice? Or would you find ways of redefining physical education in your school to reach the 35.4% who were indifferent to its impact? And/or would you radically change in order to address the needs of the 27.1% who stated that they didn’t see physical education as a stimulus for out of school sport activity? 

There are, of course, many other take homes from this paper but those come in the next section. For me, and as I’ve discussed in each blog since I started focusing my writing on this new series for beginning teachers, this is not an isolated piece of research. The connections that emanate from each tell a story of the need to change our subject. Talking yesterday in my weekly PEPRN chat with students and colleagues we reflected on the distance yet to travel in pedagogical development. Students asked how they might go about closing the gap they saw between their aspiration for PE and the classroom realities they saw. Between the hope for a subject that invites a desire to be physical outside of school and throughout each student’s life to the reality of team games and skills and drills. The answer I gave was slowly and carefully – across a career and perhaps beyond. But each and every one of us is responsible for that change and, as Kerner and colleagues show, there are some steps we could take today to start that change. I read a quote recently that said, “in a year’s time you’ll wish you made the change today” and this seems doubly true when we are talking about the future of the students in our care. 

The Paper

Kerner and colleagues argue that we know a lot about the health benefits of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and yet we also know that the majority of children and adolescents do not meet international recommendations. They remind us that sports participation peaks between the ages of 11 and 13 and that the biggest decline in physical activity levels occurs between the ages of 14 and 16. Finally they show that while physical education has been positioned as a key factor in obesity prevention and healthy lifestyles little, if anything, is known about how “young people experiences of body satisfaction during physical education relate to the sport promoting role of physical education.”  

Drawing on the field of body satisfaction and physical activity participation, Kerner and colleagues highlight the evidence, all be it limited in volume, that “boys and girls categorised as having low body satisfaction engage in less activity and spend more time in sedentary pursuits compared to those categorised as having high body satisfaction.” Given the relationship between body satisfaction and physical activity and given the desire among physical educationists to promote LLPA it seems apt to explore the impact of body satisfaction on the outcomes of physical education. 

Importantly, the authors argue that perception of body image isn’t a fix thing. It is a moment in time in a particular context. As such, it can change in the time it takes to travel from one lesson to another. Given that physical education is not only the one subject in school for which children have to change their clothes but is also the one subject that focuses on the body, it seems apt to consider how their motivation for firstly physical education and subsequently for physical activity is influenced. Using self-determination theory, and it’s interrelated facets of autonomous motivation (coming from self), controlled motivation (avoiding guilt and gaining social approval) and amotivation (lacking motivation), Kerner and colleagues set out to (a) describe pupils’ perceptions of the extent to which physical education stimulated them to engage in sports activities outside of school, (b) study whether state body satisfaction during physical education was associated with the experienced sports-promoting role of physical education and, (c) understand if state body satisfaction during physical education is an important factor in relation to physical education’s sport-promoting role. 

What they found was that, on average pupils “were just above moderately stimulated by physical education to engage in sport activities outside of school.” When the results were reported by sex then boys reported significantly higher scores than girls. As stated before 27.1% of the participants felt that physical education did not stimulate them to engage in sports activities outside of school, while 37.6% felt that it did. When state body satisfaction was considered it became clear that the more positive the perceived sports-promoting role of physical education was the higher the levels of state body satisfaction the pupils reported. This relationship was significant for girls but not for boys. 

The sex differences are significant, and it is evident from this study that boys were “more likely to report that physical education encouraged them to engage in sports activities outside of school, compared to girls…boys were more autonomously motivated for physical education compared to girls.” Importantly, in terms of the contribution I see in this study, Kerner and colleagues found that “pupils [regardless of sex] with higher state body satisfaction were more likely to report that physical education stimulated them to engage in sports activities outside of school.” As such physical education teachers need strategies to help to foster higher state body satisfaction and should strive to help students to feel content with their bodies in physical education. 

In conclusion “when pupils feel more comfortable and satisfied with their bodies in physical education, they seem to value and enjoy physical lessons more, and this more positive experience stimulates them to re-engage in sport outside of school.” It is important, therefore, that as a profession we create class environments that promote body satisfaction and challenge negative slurs and insults whenever we witness them lest we contribute to an individual’s lack of motivation for the subject we champion. Remember, what we ignore becomes part of the standards we come to accept. 

What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching - ThinkActChange (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use Twitter (@DrAshCasey) to ask a question, seek clarification, maybe challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something, or are looking for help, then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Kerner, C., Kirk, D., De Meester, A. Haerens, L. (2019). Why is physical education more stimulating for pupils who are more satisfied with their own body? Health Education Journal, 78 (3). 251-265.