PE and sports: The power of PESSPA

Written by: Jon White | Published:
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The PESSPA approach can have a big impact on students’ mental and physical health, attendance, attainment and behaviour – especially for those with SEND. Nasen Teacher of the Year Jon White discusses using school sport and physical activity to empower students

PESSPA stands for physical education, school sport and physical activity and includes PE lessons, school games events and competitions, sport leadership, extra-curricular clubs and enrichment.

Many senior leaders will say they are right behind the notion that PESSPA is important – even essential – for their students.

However, while most teachers will deliver similar levels of PESSPA this year as pre-pandemic, a survey ahead of the September return to school found that 17 per cent of key stage 2 teachers said that they will deliver less or no curriculum PE during the autumn term (Youth Sport Trust, 2020).

Furthermore, schools are facing the added financial pressure associated with Covid, which has been calculated by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) as nearly £13,000 for primary schools. Less than a third (31 per cent) of this looks set to be reimbursed by the government (Mills & Andrews, 2020).

This context is important, because in my experience too many senior leaders seem trapped by a false dilemma, influenced by their own perceptions and experiences of PE at school maybe 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years ago. This can result in the importance, impact and benefits of PESSPA being undervalued.

Often, leaders feel they must make tough decisions about cutting PESSPA time or resource allocation in order to serve other competing school interests. The after-shock of the pandemic (and the challenges of remote learning) make this view understandable, but not excusable.

There is an answer to all of these challenges: PESSPA POWER – a holistic, inclusive approach to personal development and wellbeing for all students.

The PESSPA approach

In our school, Clare Mount Specialist Sports College in Wirral, (an autism accredited special school for students with SEND), our culture is built around the idea that exercise is good for the brain and good for student attainment.

We are converted to the work of Dr John Ratey, who said: “Exercise is really for the brain, not the body. It affects mood, vitality, alertness and feelings of wellbeing.”

As Public Health England has reported (PHE, 2014):

  • Pupils with better health and wellbeing are likely to achieve better academically.
  • Effective social and emotional competencies are associated with greater health and wellbeing, and better achievement.
  • The culture, ethos and environment of a school influences the health and wellbeing of pupils and their readiness to learn.
  • A positive association exists between academic attainment and physical activity levels of pupils.

Most of our young people are students with autism. We see the role of PESSPA as an essential, high-quality intervention to support Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) outcomes, student emotional regulation, attainment, behaviour for learning, employability, and future transitions.

Activities such as sensory circuits, cycling, cardio-drumming and scootering are used to help calm, alert or awake students (depending on their sensory feelings at the time) and to help them feel ready for the rest of their school day.

I must stress that these activities are not exclusive to special schools. Many young people (especially during the current pandemic) can benefit from movement at the beginning of the day or movement breaks at other times and it does not have to be anything big – kicking a football around, shooting a basketball or a walk outside.

Our school is like any other school. There is pressure on the timetable to fit everything in, but we do not believe that cutting time for PESSPA is right.

Our students are surveyed regularly about the PESSPA curriculum and their mental and physical health. They always report positively about the contribution PESSPA makes to their personal development, wellbeing and happiness.

PESSPA and the pandemic

Even during Covid, with all the pressures our staff, students and families are under, our remote learning is built around activities which allow our students to connect with others and themselves.

We have Zumba activities every day, Paradance and Panathlon fun events weekly and online sensory circuits. We also have partnerships in place with local organisations, including the Liverpool FC Foundation, to offer afternoon sessions.

We have used the power of physical activity to facilitate a positive mental and physical health recovery and to build resilience in the face of the pandemic. Furthermore, we have partnered with a non-profit organisation called Running Head First, to offer wellbeing support through a Telegram app to all our staff, students and families.

It is not just our school. There are fantastic examples of remote PESSPA activities and learning taking place elsewhere, such as PE staff delivering live on Instagram or local school games-led timetables. I would urge senior leaders to see their PESSPA remote learning offer as equally important as other competing priorities.

PESSPA can also help as schools re-open to the majority of pupils. Upon the return to school last September, many of our students were highly anxious, less able to socially interact and had not taken part in organised PESSPA for many months. Many lacked confidence.

However, because our curriculum contains low-pressure lifestyle activities, for example Zumba, yoga, mindfulness, cycling and scootering, we were able to use this to quickly rebuild their confidence, smiles and achievement.

Below are three ways to make their PESSPA activities inclusive.

1, Inclusion process

It was once said that facilitating inclusion is all about having the will and the capacity. This is true and it is one of my personal work values. However, I would also say that facilitating inclusion in PESSPA is also about practice, knowledge, research and education.

Senior leaders do not need to be “PESSPA inclusion experts”, but they do need to know where to access high-quality PESSPA training and teaching models which can give their staff the confidence and competence to include all young people in PESSPA.

Performance management objectives centred on developing a more inclusive PESSPA approach in school can often be an appropriate “space” to help staff access professional development and to support them to lead on meaningful, important change.

2, Connected approach

Try as a senior leader to bring your PESSPA lead and your SENCO closer together to plan for students with SEND in PESSPA activities. Focus on the role inclusive PESSPA can play in achieving and maximising key EHCP outcomes – there will be many.

One approach to lift from special schools might be to have an EHCP-style personalised development approach for all students as a record of personal development and wellbeing.

3, Review your curriculum

A curriculum review is vital to place inclusive PESSPA at the centre of school development and student engagement with active learning, outdoor and lifestyle activities at the heart of the new curriculum.

All activities need to be audited for their inclusivity. It is unlikely that a traditional games curriculum will meet the needs of all students and will not lead to lifelong participation in sport and physical activity.

Lifestyle activities such as cycling, “geocaching” with a Pokémon theme, Tai chi, skateboarding, roller-blading, Zumba and scootering are great for all students to try at school – from the latter part of key stage 2 all the way through to key stage 4.

Of course we will need to provide the equipment for such activities but the art of the possible always needs exploring. There are many organisations and partners out there looking to support schools, such as national governing bodies of sport, community interest companies, charities, national disability sport organisations and football club foundations, as well as organisations offering grant funding for staff and sport leader development.


It is the strong belief of our school’s senior team that without the contribution of our virtual or face-to-face PESSPA, we could not have achieved a successful return to school last year or the high level of support around mental and physical health and wellbeing that our students benefit from.

  • Jon White is a PE teacher at Clare Mount Specialist Sport College in Merseyside and is also lead inclusion school manager and inclusion development coach for the Youth Sport Trust. He won the Teacher of the Year Award at the 2020 Nasen Awards.

Further information & resources

  • Clare Mount Specialist Sport College, in partnership with the Youth Sport Trust and the Department for Education, has produced the ‘All About Autism, All About Me’ guide. To access the guide and the free e-learning module, visit
  • Mills & Andrews: Assessing Covid-19 cost pressures on England’s schools, Education Policy Institute, December 2020:
  • Nasen Awards: For details on the awards and the 2020 winners, visit
  • Public Health England: The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment: A briefing for head teachers, governors and staff in education settings, November 2014:
  • Running Head First is a not-for-profit organisation which utilises walking, jogging, running and physical activity to improve the mental health of the population in North West England:
  • Youth Sport Trust: Returning to school after Covid restrictions: The view from PE and school leads, September 2020:

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