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Physical education has been a central component of the national education system since its first implementation in public schools in the late 19th century. Incorporation of physical activity into schools is believed to offer a range of physical, psychological and social benefits and the National Curriculumcontains policy, based on research by the British Heart Foundation and independent education researchers, for physical education and sport promotion amongst the nation's youth. This policy has generally been effective in helping students increase their physical activity levels and meet national guidelines. However, this policy is lacking in some ways and metrics for evaluating the success of the region's physical education programme are somewhat limited. The purpose of this essay is to review existing evidence regarding physical education in schools. The benefits of physical activity for children will first be considered, followed by a review of the National Curriculum's policy on physical education. The efficacy of this policy will then be discussed, highlighting any evidence evaluating this relationship. Limitations to existing policy will then be presented, and recommendations for future research and practice will be provided. This essay concludes with a brief summary and outline of key points.
Benefits of Physical Activity for Children
The UK public education system had upheld a tradition of physical activity promotion within its schools, as well as recognised the multiple benefits of regular exercise on educational outcomes. These beliefs are based on empirical research, of which the benefits of physical activity for health and well-being have been widely documented (see Hills et al., 2011). These benefits appear to impact three broad dimensions of well-being in youth, including physical, psychological and social dimensions (Metcalf, Henley & Wilkin, 2012). These three dimensions combine to determine an individual's Quality of Life (QoL), or an individual's subjective standard of happiness and general life satisfaction (Hills, Andersen & Byrne, 2011). QoL has become an increasingly targeted outcome variable in public health and medical interventions due to its strong correlation with physical health (Hills et al., 2011). Numerous empirical studies (e.g., Marmot et al., 2012; Metcalf et al., 2012) have demonstrated that improved QoL is associated with reduced disease and illness, as well as reduced healthcare costs associated with treating such conditions. Including physical education in schools has, therefore, been recognised as a productive means of promoting exercise and healthy lifestyle habits from a young age (Hills et al., 2011).
A recent review of the health benefits of physical activity and fitness for school-aged youth demonstrated that even moderate amounts of daily exercise led to numerous positive outcomes amongst youth population members (Janssen & Le Blanc, 2010). Based on a review of 86 papers yielding 113 intervention outcomes, this study demonstrated that physical activity was associated with moderate-to-strong positive effects on blood cholesterol, blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, obesity, bone density, psychological depression and physical injury (Janssen & Le Blanc, 2010). Furthermore, physical activity was associated with a dose-response effect, whereby children who received more exercise experienced greater benefit (Janssen & Le Blanc, 2010). Finally, this study demonstrated that exercise of vigorous intensities yielded greater benefits, while aerobic activities were associated with the strongest effect on bone density. Based on these findings, it was recommended that children aged 5 to 17 years old accumulate at least 60 minutes daily of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (Janssen & LeBlanc, 2010).
Furthermore, Level 2 students are believed to benefit from even higher exercise intensities, while all children in this age group should continue to include weight-bearing and resistance training activities that promote bone and muscular strength (Janssen & Le Blanc, 2010). An increasing body of research has demonstrated the positive effects of more vigorous exercise intensities, and health professionals and sports scientists alike are incorporating high-intensity interval training into their program designs (Janssen & Le Blanc, 2010).
These findings confirm several previous studies (e.g., Craggs et al., 2011; Metcalf et al., 2012) regarding the positive physical effects of physical activity for physical outcomes, and Janssen and LeBlanc's (2010) physical activity recommendations provide more rigorous guidelines than those of the National Health Service NHS (2013). Physical activity is also associated with social benefits that can improve QoL in children (Hills et al., 2011). From an early age, physical activity plays a key role in the socialisation process of young students, who engage in play activities as a means of understanding social dynamics such as observation, modelling, sharing, social reciprocity, social exchange, gender roles and more (Brockman et al., 2011). As children reach later stages of their academic careers, involvement in sports and non-competitive activities serve as a key social outlet for children to continue to understand social processes and develop social skills needed to function in both the academic and professional environment (Hills et al., 2011). Continuing to encourage the 'play' aspect of physical activity appears to be an important means by whichto ensure continued participation and prevent the natural decline in physical activity that typically occurs around the ages of 10 to 11 (Brockman et al., 2011).
Finally, physical activity offers psychological benefits, both with respect to general affect and cognitive capacity (Craggs et al., 2011). A recent review of physical activity interventions for American children (i.e., Tomporowski, Lamnbourne & Okumura, 2011) demonstrated that consistent exercise of moderate-to-vigorous intensities was effective for promoting emotional and intellectual development. Exercise is particularly effective for enhancing executive functioning (Tomporowski et al., 2011). Biddle and Asare (2011) performed a similar review of physical activity studies with British children, demonstrating that physical activity had strong positive effects on reducing depression, with a small effect shown for reducing anxiety. However, interventions conducted specifically with children from the UK remain somewhat limited, with authors finding just nine interventions that met inclusion criteria (Biddle & Asare, 2011). Findings related to improved cognition within these children as a result of physical activity are somewhat inconsistent, although there is some evidence (e.g., Craggs et al., 2011) of improved cognitive performance and academic achievement resulting from physical activity of various modalities. Although the physiological route by which these benefits take place is not fully understood, the effects of exercise on cognitive functioning may result from the release of neurochemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, that regulate mood and clarify cognitive processes (Craggs et al., 2011). These activities may also enhance self-efficacy for physical activity, an affective state that may transfer to cognitive activities as well (Best, 2010). As technology develops, research is expected to match physical activity designs with benefits (Craggs et al., 2011).
National Curriculum's Policy on Physical Education
Due to the extensive documentation of the benefits of physical activity, the National Curriculum has implemented policy on physical education for more than one century (Bouchard, Blair & Haskell, 2012. A new National Curriculum is currently being designed for UK schools that will allow for more flexibility in programme design and offers a slimmer framework (Association for Physical Education, 2014). However, concepts from the former policy will still be incorporated into the new framework, including basic outlines for educational principles at key stages of learning and development. The policy currently segregates physical activity needs for students in Key Stages 1 and 2 versus those in Key Stages 3 and 4 (Gov.UK, 2013). However, the policy recognises that high-quality physical education is needed to promote full psychological, social and physical development, and the National Curriculum encourages engagement in sports and physical activities throughout all stages (Gov.UK, 2013). Furthermore, the curriculum assesses competency in physical activities, rather than just participation, in order to ensure that students know and apply skills learned within physical education courses and incorporates physical activity into their daily lives (Bouchard et al., 2012).
At Key Stage 1, the National Curriculum recommends that students "develop fundamental movement skills, become increasing competent and confident and access a broad range of opportunities to extend their agility, balance, and coordination, individually and with others" (Gov.UK, 2013 p. 1). During this stage, pupils are encouraged to engage in both competition and non-competitive activities and become involved in increasingly challenging activities (Gov.UK, 2013). Finally, pupils within this stage are encouraged to learn basic movement skills that promote coordination and development of general motor programs, participate in team games, and perform activities that require simpler movement patterns (Gov.UK, 2013).
At Key Stage 2, the National Curriculum recommends that students "continue to apply and develop a broader range of skills, learning how to use them in different ways and to link them to make actions and sequences of movement" (Gov.UK, 2013, p. 1). The National Curriculum encourages students to participate in activities that promote communication, collaboration, and the development of self-monitoring and self-evaluation of skills (Gov.UK, 2013). Additionally, students at this stage are encouraged to increasingly participate in competitive activities, develop flexibility, strength, technique, control and balance and perform activities with more complex movement patterns (Gov.UK, 2013). Comparing performance against peers and national standards is also recommended at this stage (Gov.UK, 2013). Swimming and water safety skills are introduced at Key Stage 1 or Key Stage 2.
At Key Stage 3, the National Curriculum recommends that students "build on and embed the physical development and skills learned in Key stages 1 and 2, become more competent, confident and expert in their techniques, and apply them across different sports and physical activities" (Gov.UK, 2013, p. 1). During this stage, students are encouraged to use a range of different techniques and methods to compete against opponents, continue to improve performance based on peers and national standards, take part in increasingly difficult and novel situations, and engage in non-school sport activities (Gov.UK, 2013). Additionally, educators are encouraged to continue to foster confidence through personal mastery of tasks and improvements in comparison with individual and national standards (Gov.UK, 2013).
In Key Stage 4, the National Curriculum recommends that students "tackle complex and demanding physical activities" (Gov.UK, 2013, p. 1). At this stage, students have generally learned to become more independent and have ideally developed self-monitoring skills to continue to direct their own sport and interest physical activity participation (Gov.UK, 2013). During Key Stage 4, students are taught to develop multiple tactics and strategies to use in competitive situations, continue to master techniques of chosen sports or activities, take part in adventurous activities that require complex decision-making, and take part in both school and non-school-related physical activities (Gov.UK, 2013). This curriculum has guided physical education pedagogy for several years, although recent reform has led to some structural changes that are discussed in more detail below.
Efficacy of National Curriculum Policy
The National Curriculum's policy on physical education draws from contemporary development research and is believed to offer an efficacious guideline for individual schools to follow in their programme designs (Standage et al., 2012). As the 2013 policy has been submitted for revision, the 2014 framework is being implemented to provide even greater freedom and flexibility for schools in their physical education delivery and curriculum model designs (Haerens et al., 2011). According to the Association for Physical Education (2014), this increased flexibility will be even more evident in primary schools, and places a higher level of responsibilityon teachers to be experts in their subject matter and pedagogical approach toward physical education (Association for Physical Education, 2014). Such a policy is hoped to place more power in the hands of educators and schools to include programmes they believe will be beneficial for their student populous.
Though the National Curriculum is believed to be an efficacious and thorough policy that allows for individuality and creativityon the part of teachers to understand their own students' needs, the effects of this policy remain to be seen. The former policy had previously been criticised for its limited evaluative efforts and sometimes ambiguous effects on key learning outcomes (Evans, 2004). According to a report by Evans (2004), the UK's former policy on physical education contained antiquated concepts regarding the development of physical abilities, and argued that the policy promoted exclusive practices for students less apt toward exercise in some respects.
In a 2005 study related to the former UK physical education policy, Fairclough and Stratton (2005) found that physical education for students aged 11 to 14 was effective for increasing physical activity in students who were of high academic ability, while students of low- to moderate- academic ability did not increase their physical activity levels in response to physical education programmes. Thorburn, Jess and Atencio (2011) challenged the common conception that physical education programmes contribute to the well-being of students. Based on a review of Scottish physical education programmes, these authors concluded that individual curriculums often produced contrasting effects in student such as those found in Fairclough and Stratton's (2005) research. While high-achieving students appear to benefit from this curriculum, such policy may promote exclusiveness in students of differing academic abilities (Thorburn et al., 2011). As a result, physical education may actually detract from the well-being of marginalised student groups.
While studies (e.g., Janssen & LeBlanc, 2010; Standage et al., 2012) have demonstrated that increased physical activity has been associated with reduced obesity and increased educational outcomes, the precise relationship between physical education policy and these benefits is less clear. Geyer (2012) criticised former education policy for its strong centralist nature and auditing approach toward education improvements. Therefore, allowing for greater flexibility amongst individual schools to assess needs and design a curriculum that most effectively meets those needs is believed to be a significant improvement over former policy (Geyer, 2012). Additional, more stringent evaluative strategies amongst individual schools may allow for less of an auditing approach toward improving physical education outcomes and more of a proactive approach that anticipates changing needs amongst diverse student groups (Geyer, 2012).
Limitations to Existing Policy
Though the National Curriculum for physical education is based on evidence and has recognised the widespread benefits of physical activity for UK student population members, some limitations exist that have warranted changes within the new policy. In addition to the lack of evidence regarding its efficacy, as well as the centralised and auditory approach toward addressing improvements in the system, the curriculum has been criticised for a lack of clarity and a lack of awareness by parents and teachers as to how to properly implement existing policy (Haerens et al., 2011). For example, Haerens et al. (2011) showed that many teachers lack a clear understanding of the specific goals and outcomes of the National Curriculum at each Key Stage, or suggest that these outcomes do not match the needs of their particular institution. This limitation will ideally be addressed by decentralising the new curriculum and placing more power of design into the hands of teachers within the UK education system (Geyer, 2012).
Additionally, parents have been shown to generally lack awareness about key outcomes associated with each stage of development in UK educational pedagogy (Kirk, 2014). This is unfortunate, as parents play a pivotal role in regulating the extracurricular activities of children, and their involvement in promoting physical activity is crucial to capitalising on the inclusion of physical education in schools (Kirk, 2014). Implementation challenges have plagued previous UK physical education policy, and parents may help overcome this barrier (Zhu, Ennis & Chen, 2011).There have been contextual constraints among schools limiting fitness science learning in the academic environment, as well as discrepancies in personal values toward physical education as a key component to a science-based educational program (Zhu et al., 2011). Greater efforts are needed to raise awareness of the benefits of physical activity to parents in order to gain support for its inclusion and continued participation in schools (Zhu et al., 2011).
The benefits of physical activity for children are clear, and there are obvious societal advantages to promoting regular exercise from an early age (Standage et al., 2012). As the academic environment represents the most optimal setting in which to promote health and physical activity, a National Curriculum that includes physical education is crucial to a healthy and productive society (Kirk, 2014). However, improvements must be made in the individualisation of curricula based on need, as well as efforts to monitor the efficacy of existing policy (Bohn-Gettler & Pellegrini, 2014). Finally, greater efforts to improve awareness of policy and the benefits of physical activity, particularly amongst parents, are needed in order to ensure national physical activity guidelines are met (Geyer, 2012).
De-centralising the National Curriculum design and providing more flexibility for individual schools to target specific needs is recommended to promote the most effective physical educationprogramme for UK students (Geyer, 2012). Individual schools differ in their physical education needs, and their curriculum designs should reflect this need. Additionally, engaging parents in the design process as well as seeking their support at the school level may be beneficial in ensuring physical activity behaviours are encouraged in the home environment (Kirk, 2014). Finally, more research is needed that tracks key metrics related to the efficacy of new National Curriculum policy (Bohn-Gettler & Pellegrini, 2014). For example, the relationship between physical education implementation and academic outcomes, obesity and QoL would all be beneficial in evaluating the efficacy of physical education policy (Hills et al., 2011). Such efforts may also help reduce the auditory approach taken in previous policy and encourage a more proactive physical education curriculum.
The purpose of this paper was to discuss contemporary issues regarding physical education policy within the National Curriculum. The benefits of physical activity for children were first explored, including psychological, social and physical outcomes. A review of the National Curriculum policy on physical education was then presented, including former policy and new changes within the 2014 revisions. The efficacy of this policy was then considered, as well as the limitations. Finally, recommendations for improving existing policy and increasing physical activity rates were discussed. Based on the evidence presented within this paper, physical activity appears to offer substantial benefits to students and the inclusion of physical education in the National Curriculum has the potential to offer long-term benefits to society. However, some issues regarding assessment, monitoring, decentralisation of design, incorporating parent involvement, and taking a more proactive approach toward improvements will all contribute to improved policy in the future. Implementing more rigorous research and intervention designs will ideally alleviate existing limitations in research surrounding this topic.
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