Long before Covid-19 altered the way learning and teaching takes place, the subject of physical education (PE) was somewhat marginalised in the school curriculum. Within the UK, as elsewhere, researchers have repeatedly called for the subject to be given increased status, with Harris (2018) arguing for PE to become a core subject. Despite this, concerns over the position of PE within schools have endured. These concerns largely reflect the perceived place and value of the subject in the broader educational landscape, in which core subjects (such as English and mathematics) are prioritised. Furthermore, there has in recent times been a notable increase in the ‘outsourcing’ of PE to external providers such as sports coaches, particularly within the primary sector. These examples paint a worrying picture when we consider the significant and wide-ranging opportunities and benefits that PE presents for developing students holistically, with learning taking place across multiple domains.
During the lockdown period necessitated by Covid-19, and the resulting school closures, there has been a rise in the number of ‘celebrities’ delivering online ‘classes’ to supplement ‘home-schooling’. For instance, on Children’s BBC (CBBC), singer and author Geri Horner (née Halliwell) has provided tips on creative writing, while astronaut Tim Peake has discussed the science behind space rockets. However, these have largely been framed as ‘additional’ learning opportunities, and these celebrities have not been viewed as replacement teachers.
Arguably, PE has not been afforded the same courtesy. Instead, we have witnessed celebrities – most notably Joe Wicks, who has been dubbed the ‘nation’s PE teacher’ in the UK media (see Guardian, 2020) – taking centre stage and positioning fitness sessions as PE lessons. However, celebrities such as Wicks are not qualified PE teachers and this, understandably, has raised concerns within the PE community.
Notable among these concerns is an apparent disconnect between the celebrity ‘offer’ and the educative intent of PE, which is to promote ‘learning through the physical’ via a broad and balanced range of activities that are inclusive and age appropriate (DfE, 2013). Wicks has undoubtedly offered young people – and their families – fun ways to take part in daily physical activity (PA) during lockdown. Given the importance of PA to health and wellbeing, this is to be welcomed. However, it should not be mistaken for PE. These fitness sessions are narrow in scope and repetitive in nature – consequently, they cannot develop broader physical skills and competences. In accordance with Harris (2018), we argue that high-quality PE goes beyond simple instruction to instead provide all children with the skills, attitudes, values, knowledge and understanding for lifelong participation in PA. The learning it provides also needs to be meaningful and inclusive (that is, accessible to all), which PE teachers are equipped to ensure across all lessons. In contrast, the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach adopted by Wicks and others fails to provide an inclusive experience, as seemingly little (or no) consideration is given to students’ ages, abilities or backgrounds.
‘The rise of celebrity ‘PE teachers’ poses a quandary: while they can inspire young people (and their families) to be active, there is no substitute for high-quality PE, provided by qualified teachers, that provides meaningful and progressive learning and meets the needs of all students.’
Reflecting on the rise of celebrity ‘PE teachers’, we are faced with something of a quandary. We recognise the potential they have to inspire young people (and their families) to be active, and can learn much from their harnessing of popular media. However, we must acknowledge the risks of such individuals taking centre stage, and must champion the significant role that qualified teachers play in providing meaningful and progressive learning through high-quality PE that recognises and meets the needs of all students. Nonetheless, the fact that celebrity ‘offers’ were (often) enthusiastically accepted by some schools gives pause for thought for the profession. The risks posed by such phenomena have served to underline the marginalised position that PE holds in the school curriculum – one whereby celebrities can easily be substituted for qualified teachers. PE has a great deal of potential for supporting children’s holistic development but, to realise this, it needs to be taught by qualified teachers – they simply cannot be replaced by any Joe Bloggs.
Dr Julie Stirrup, Dr Oliver Hooper, Dr Rachel Sandford, Prof. Jo Harris, Dr Ashley Casey & Prof. Lorraine Cale
School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University, UK
Department for Education [DfE] (2013, September 11). National curriculum in England: physical education programmes of study [Webpage]. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-physical-education-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-physical-education-programmes-of-study
Guardian (2020, March 24). Why 35 million people want Joe Wicks to be their PE Teacher. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2020/mar/24/why-35-million-people-want-joe-wicks-to-be-their-pe-teacher
Harris, J., (2018). The case for physical education becoming a core subject in the national curriculum. Physical Education Matters, summer 2018, 9–12.