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PE in schools needs to recognise the challenges faced by today’s pupils

Liz Durden-Myers
April 25, 2022

The Government needs to establish a National Plan for Sport and Recreation, writes Liz Durden-Myers, which would make PE more inclusive for minority students and groups with protected characteristics.

Almost a year ago I presented evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee for Sport and Recreation on how educators can promote lifelong engagement in sport and physical activity. I emphasised that 'physical literacy' needs to be at the heart of the PE curriculum.

Soon afterwards, the Committee on a National Plan for Sport and Recreation published a report on the matter, and at long last this is due to be debated in Parliament this month. It is calling on the Government to establish a national plan for sport, health and well-being.

If the Government wants to get children and young people more active, PE needs a huge shake-up. Historically, PE has been a polarising subject. Children either love or loathe it. Yet physical activity is so important. We need to address these polarised perspectives and ensure the joy of physical activity reaches and inspires all pupils. Part of the problem is that physical education and sport have been synonymous. I am not at all anti sport nor against healthy competition! But they shouldn't be prioritised over an inclusive and meaningful curriculum.

What we mean by inclusive and meaningful is teachers should be proactive in identifying, addressing, raising awareness and closing inequalities. This means supporting pupils with protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation).

One area in desperate need of guidance is how to support transgender and gender diverse pupils in PE. Pupils who identify as transgender may define themselves as transsexual, intersex, gender dysphoric or feel that they do not fit into the gender that society expects of them.

Currently the PE curriculum fails them. Put yourself in the shoes of a pupil who might be questioning their identity or consider themselves as trans. Imagine PE is on their timetable today. Do they look forward to, or worry about this lesson? PE can be quite confronting to pupils who are not cisgender because of the binary gendered traditions of our subject. For example there are clear boys and girls changing rooms, PE kit, groups and activities.

Myself and my colleague, Simon Scarborough, Head of Physical Education at Crispin School Somerset came up with a mantra that we call the' 5 A's in becoming an ally to the LGBTQ+ community in PE. They are:

Awareness: Understanding the LGBTQ+ community and being knowledgeable on the issues, facts, laws, policies and culture of the LGBTQ+ community will help the PE profession create more inclusive and culturally inclusive environments.

Advocacy: Being seen as a safe person and place for pupils to be who they are without judgement. This includes a zero tolerance on homophobic/biphobic/transphobic language or gender shaming. For example, recognising that comments such as 'you throw like a girl' are simply no longer unacceptable.

Adjustments: Changes to language and environments can be made to be more inclusive and less binary. For example, substituting terms such as 'ladies and gents or girls and boys' for more neutral terms such as 'year 7, class, pupils, students, folks, peeps and people'. We advise renaming boys and girls changing rooms to changing rooms 1 and 2 and having somewhere suitable for those who do not feel comfortable in either setting to change into their PE kit.

Also, PE kits could be gender neutral. Guidance such as 'skorts/leggings/tracksuit' for the girls and 'shorts/tracksuit' for the boys, should be avoided. They should just be items of clothes for pupils to choose what they feel most comfortable in.

Activities: They should also be gender neutral, avoiding stipulations that girls partake in netball and hockey, while boys partake in rugby and football. This also extends to extracurricular clubs and wider opportunities whereby all students should be able to attend, regardless of their gender. There are some complexities around this – some groups may want to have a girls football club. However, there must be an opportunity for all students to access all activities, so a combination of both single and mixed groups would be more appropriate.

Acceptance: Acceptance is the extent to which the LGBTQ+ community, or anyone for that matter, are seen in ways that are positive. All young people have faced adversity and challenges over the last two years, with unprecedented disruption to their education and restrictions on their social opportunities. Therefore, compassion, empathy and acceptance is key to supporting our young people. Being socially and publicly accepted for who you are is tremendously powerful. It highlights that this environment is a safe place for you to be who you are.

I think PE should stand for "Positive Experiences' for all pupils. We have an opportunity and a responsibility to ensure that they find their passion for physical activity in a safe, supportive and inclusive environment.

Dr Liz Durden-Myers is a senior lecturer in Physical Education at Bath Spa University and the University of Gloucestershire, and is the Managing Director of PE Scholar.
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