Penney and colleagues argue that with the increased emphasis on physical activity for life has come an accompanying emphasis on protection and enhancing the position and resourcing of physical education (PE). There have been moves, internationally, to legislate change in the lowly position of PE and stipulate minimal contact hours in school for the subject but these “by no means guarantee advances in learning or in the extend of interest and engagement in physical activity within and beyond the school gate” (p. 422). 

Troublingly, this increased belief that PE can serve as a catalyst for lifelong physical activity – and significant investment and interest in the notion of high quality PE – hasn’t been accompanied by an explicit notion of how high quality can be achieved or ensured. In this paper, Penney et al (2009) argue that the drive by different national and state governments for high quality PE needs to be accompanied by an articulation and demonstration of what high quality is and how ‘it’ might be defined and actualised in practice.

The authors holds that attempts by different governments to measure high quality PE and show how they (personally) have raised standards has led to the development of easily measurable markers that quantify quality outcomes without considering the contextual factors and diverse cultures that impact on the very definition of high quality. Penney et al challenge the reader to, instead, acknowledge the diverse, shifting and inevitable political terrain of education and consider high quality PE not as one thing but as “the inter-related message systems of schooling: namely, curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. 


Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment

Quality Curriculum

Drawing work of Pill (2004), the authors consider ‘quality’ in relation to curriculum. Pill, they argue, holds that PE programmes should be aligned with curriculum and standard frameworks, should be student centred, developmentally appropriate, integrated and include student choice. Furthermore, there should be a community dimension in high quality PE programmes that link into the initiatives and activities occurring beyond the school gate.  

Developing this argument further, the paper contends that contemporary curriculum require physical educators to identify ‘key’ and ‘core’ content and ensure that their teaching aligns with that content and not merely with tradition. Penney et al. also see a “need for the inclusion and mapping of content that aligns with learning that may be deemed distinct or unique to PE and secondly, more generic learning to be addressed and advanced ‘through’ PE together with other learning areas” (p. 426). 

One of the strongest messages about curriculum to emerge from the paper, for me at least, is the need to for “PE to always engaged with learning that is clearly distinct to PE, and the particular contribution that PE can also make to ‘other’ learning.” This suggests that we need to remember what PE is and what it does and not get distracted by obscure reference to quality. A quality PE programme will ‘do’ what only PE can ‘do’.


Quality Pedagogy

Penney et al. hold that, in some respects, PE has been good at developing innovative pedagogical approaches (see Sport Education, Teaching Games for Understanding, Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility) and yet some (the authors included) have argued that it is sometimes pedagogy is missing from PE. Indeed, pedagogy means different things to different people. For the authors, pedagogy should be about developing a relationship between the different elements of school i.e. the teacher, the context, the view of learning and learning about learning. Drawing on a comment from the New South Wales Department of Education and Training the papers reminds us that “critically, the term pedagogy recognises that how one teaches is inseparable from what one teaches, from what and how one assesses and from how one learns.”

When considering quality teaching, Penney et al. hold that it could be constructed around three dimensions of pedagogy: intellectual quality (the development of deep understanding), quality learning environment (classrooms clearly focused on learning) and significance (learning that is meaning and important to students). Of the three, the paper argues that intellectual quality is central to a pedagogy that produces high quality learning outcomes. 


Quality Assessment

In their consideration of quality, Penney et al. are of the opinion that assessment should (1) focus on intended student learning, (2) be inclusive in construction and enactment, and (3) be defensible in relation to validity and reliability. In contrast, traditional assessment had been product focused, often looking at components of fitness or is de-contextualised because it looks at skills in isolation. Alternatively it may include assessment of rules, tactics and history or consider superfluous factors such as attitudes, dressing out, effort, participation and attendance. Quality Assessment, in comparison, is connected to the world. It has application and meaning in students’ lives and isn’t abstract or disassociated. As such, it could be argued that authenticity is key. 

If assessment is authentic then it stands to reason that it is valid and reliable and that it would stand up to the scrutiny of ourselves and others. Significantly, and as Penney et al. argue, quality judgements in PE are framed by a number of factors and are not immune to personal belief, personal values and the influence of others. As such it is important that we assess in ways that acknowledge the knowledge and understanding that is distinct or unique to PE and not just what we have historically assessed.



The notion of quality is as important now as when this paper was written. You could, in fact, argue that the situations described by Penney et al. has worsened. As such we need to find the hereto absent conceptual basis for quality. Such a basis can, in turn, inform debates and actions in PE. Quality is not one thing. It is personal and looks different in different educational contexts. The argument here is not for a standardized version of quality but for a considering of what quality curriculum, quality pedagogy and quality assessment might look like in your school and build from there.  

This article is the most read paper in Sport, Education and Society. 



Dawn Penney , Ross Brooker , Peter Hay & Lorna Gillespie (2009) Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment: three message systems of schooling and dimensions of quality physical education, Sport, Education and Society, 14:4, 421-442, DOI: 10.1080/13573320903217125