Case study: Making PE and sports a priority

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Inclusive and dynamic: Pupils in action at Birchwood Primary where PE and sports provision is considered on a par with literacy and numeracy

With today’s educational climate focusing on literacy and numeracy, PE can sometimes be left behind. Not so at Birchwood Primary. Suzanne O’Connell finds out how deputy headteacher Melanie Alexander and her team have made PE and sports a priority

Birchwood Primary School is located on the outskirts of Ipswich. It prides itself on its rich curriculum which is supported by its four Birchwood “Bolts”. These national areas of excellence include sporting excellence, being a forest school, an eco-school and being a Gold Food For Life Partnership School.

Deputy headteacher, Melanie Alexander, is committed to making PE a high-profile subject in her school. She explained: “We have received the Association for Physical Education Quality Mark with distinction 2015-18 and retained the School Games Gold Mark for PE three years running. Keeping children fit and active is at the heart of everything we do.”

There are no missed opportunities for ensuring that the pupils at Birchwood are physically, as well as mentally, engaged in their lessons. This commitment runs through the school’s ethos as well as its curriculum and extra-curricular opportunities. The success of the subject begins with the high profile it is given.

There are many indicators that PE is central to teaching and learning at Birchwood. Everyone must wear a PE kit including both staff and pupils. Sports Premium funding supports the purchase of the necessary kit for pupils who qualify for the Pupil Premium. It acts as an indication that PE is a valuable lesson that you must be prepared for – sport is something that you don’t just “do at school”. Sustainability is vital and adults are used as role models for continued participation at any age. It all demonstrates a clear message: PE matters.

PE lessons

Birchwood delivers 90 minutes a week of formal PE lessons. Pupils learn fundamental movements initially such as crawling, rolling, stepping, walking and jogging. They then move on to linking these into movement phrases such as climbing, balancing, jumping and landing in order to “move over an obstacle”.

Teachers ask careful and challenging questions and each lesson is organised to include mini-plenaries throughout. Children are encouraged to apply their knowledge, understanding and skills to different contexts and are given a confident voice. This allows them to have an input into what is taught and also enables them to be clear about how to improve.

As sport is a Birchwood Bolt, the PE curriculum is only one of the many ways in which the importance of physical exercise and making healthy lifestyle choices is reinforced.

Part of the school ethos

Birchwood children wanted to give their own slant to the mile-a-day campaign, according to Ms Alexander, and as such pupils can be seen at any time of the day following the marked-out route around the school building, making sure that they have covered the daily distance.

It is not only the “2K a day” initiative that the Birchwood’s school council has had input into. They launched their own poster campaign to encourage the school community to keep fit and look for more opportunities to be physically active. The “get active” posters are placed around and outside the school and again have helped to raise the profile and possibilities surrounding physical activity.

Play equipment is varied each day at playtime and the activities are led by the children. Older children take responsibility for younger children and encourage them to try something new. Every opportunity is taken to keep children moving – including through the garden gang and Forest School, which are also considered to be physical activities.

Extra-curricular activities

There is an extensive list of extra-curricular activities and these support both the more and less able. The activities available include a vast number of different sports such as tennis, rugby, athletics, golf, basketball, volleyball, cricket and cycling. There are some more unusual activities for those looking for something different including hip hop dance, Boot camp, Start to Move, and even skipping.

Ms Alexander added: “We’ve found that offering the hip hop dance has really encouraged boys to have a go. Our boys and girls football clubs are also designed to encourage children whatever their gender.”

Birchwood does not have a lot of children entitled to the Pupil Premium. At the last count there were 11 but the school is very much committed to ensuring that as many of them as possible access after-school clubs. In 2014, 71 per cent of their disadvantaged pupils accessed at least one additional activity. In 2017 the number was 94 per cent.

Ms Alexander produces a detailed spending plan for the Sports Premium. Some of it is used to subsidise the clubs. However, parents also contribute towards them – as there was uncertainty as to how long the funding might continue. Some of the Sports Premium goes to subsidise educational visits such as trips to Wimbledon and the Rugby World Cup.

“It shows our pupils what they can aspire to,” Ms Alexander explained. “Members of the family are also invited to attend as their enthusiasm is key if children are to continue these sports in their own time.”

Staffing the clubs

Such a range of activities requires the help of specialist coaches. Ms Alexander has invested a lot of time in building a network of representatives from different local sports’ clubs who input into their extra-curricular offer. She explained: “These are high-quality coaches who are attached to local clubs. This has the advantage that pupils can then continue with the club if they like it.”

Eighty-five per cent of pupils participate in organised sport provision off-site after the close of the school day. The fact that so many of the staff have a keen sporting interest has helped Ms Alexander to build her range of contacts: “I’m a keen tennis player and this helped me make links with local tennis coaches. Another member of staff is keen on volleyball and has built bridges there too.”

All staff, including teaching assistants, are expected to lead an extra-curricular club. This can be at break time or after-school. When a new club is due to start, a taster session is offered during the school day so that all the children can see if it is something that they might like to take part in. Not all the clubs run all year. Using such a range of sports coaches, there has to be flexibility of what is on offer and when.

Master and catch-up classes

Master-classes are run during curriculum time in the afternoons. Children are identified who have a particular aptitude and interest in a sport and are given block intensive teaching time. This happens in dance, tennis and rugby and those selected must meet strict criteria.
They are given a personal learning plan which the parents must commit to. Progress against the plan is discussed at parents’ meetings and videos and photos are taken as evidence of progress. There are currently 45 children engaged in the master-class programme with some running for the whole year and others for 10 weeks.

Pupils who need it are also given extra support. Birchwood has its own version of the gym trail which includes supporting growth and development. Children identified as underachieving in PE are classed as being vulnerable in this subject. Again they are given their own plan and learning journey which is reviewed regularly.

The school carefully screens for anyone who is not taking advantage of some additional activity. Where this is the case they are named on a “bookmark” which is issued to the mid-day staff. Ms Alexander explained: “They are asked to keep an eye on these children and try to ensure that they are encouraged to be active at lunchtime even if we don’t manage to involve them in one of our extra activities.”

Staff training

Birchwood has a very special afternoon curriculum which includes subject specialists teaching their own subjects, a little like in a secondary school. This extends from year 2 to 6 and means that all the children have the best provision in each subject. There are three lead PE teachers teaching the games, gym and dance curriculum. This use of specialist teaching has really enabled the school to raise standards.

In Reception and year 1 the children keep their class teacher but an extensive programme is followed to ensure that they know how to teach PE effectively. Ms Alexander leads a regular Lesson Study which includes her supporting the planning of the unit of work, starting with her teaching the first lesson for the teacher to observe. The second and third lessons are taught by the class teacher. Ms Alexander also team teaches lesson 4 before the class teacher concludes the unit. After lesson 6 teachers look at the outcomes with Ms Alexander and evaluate the overall programme. This way they feel competent in teaching the unit and Ms Alexander feels confident that best practice is available to children throughout the school in whichever class they may be.

Birchwood’s approach to PE is both dynamic and inclusive. It hasn’t allowed the subject to become the poor relation of literacy and numeracy but gives it at least equal status. As children’s obesity levels rise, this commitment to helping keep them fit and healthy in a sustainable way is one hope for the future.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.


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