The concept of a ‘bubble’ has become synonymous with the Covid-19 pandemic, a metaphor for restricted physical and social interaction. Such draconian practices have placed untold challenges on the education system, making it a notoriously difficult time to become a teacher.
In this blog post we extend the ‘bubble’ concept to primary physical education (PE). PE has experienced its own form of isolation, often being presented as a ‘specialist’ and ‘complex’ area of the curriculum to teach (Jones & Green, 2017; Fletcher & Mandigo, 2012). It is reported that many primary teachers lack confidence teaching PE, and as a consequence are increasingly being replaced by outside providers (Sperka & Enright, 2018). A shift in who teaches PE (from teacher to external provider) has led to pre-service teachers (PSTs) having reduced opportunities to engage in the subject. One study reported as many as 50 per cent of PSTs had not taught any PE when in school, with ‘outsourcing’ cited as the main reason for this (Randall & Griggs, 2020).
However, could the pandemic have started to burst the PE specialist bubble? Initial findings from our study investigating the experiences of primary PSTs suggests that PE practices are changing.
In the summer of 2021, we captured data from 53 PSTs who were on a one-year primary Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) programme, across four higher education institutions. Findings from the online survey showed that most participants had a variety of opportunities to engage in PE over the course of the year, with many receiving between 5 to 20 dedicated hours from their initial teacher education (ITE) provider. While the very nature of PE requires practical engagement in physical-based learning environments, the ITE providers showed flexibility and adaptability despite the restrictions, drawing upon a range of blended learning approaches. These included face-to-face, online, practical (Covid-19 secure) and theoretical delivery.
The school-based picture was also a positive one, with 48 out of the 53 participants reporting being able to put their university-based learning into practice. The majority taught between 1 to 12 lessons over a period of 4 to 17 weeks. The few who were unable to teach stated this was due to outside providers delivering PE, or Covid-19 restrictions.
‘Giving PE a go’
These findings have presented a pleasing but somewhat unexpected insight into primary PE ITE. Compared to before the pandemic, where opportunities for PSTs to teach primary PE were almost non-existent, teaching PE became a more prominent feature of the ITE experience. Participants reported that having the opportunity to teach PE meant they felt confident about their future practice. The majority (42 participants) reported either being somewhat to extremely confident about teaching PE once qualified. A simple opportunity to ‘give PE a go’ might have been all that was needed to nudge teacher confidence in the right direction.
‘A simple opportunity to “give PE a go” might have been all that was needed to nudge teacher confidence in the right direction.’
Three factors may account for this change in practice. The first is that ‘bubbled’ learning may have reduced the number of outside providers delivering PE in schools. Therefore, to meet the statutory requirements of the national curriculum, teachers (and PSTs) once again find themselves the main deliverers of primary PE. A second plausible explanation is that the pandemic and the subsequent series of national lockdowns have highlighted numerous concerns over children’s health and wellbeing, leading to greater engagement of physical activity within schools. Finally, the nature of PE, and the adaptable environments where it can be taught, has meant that learning outdoors during a pandemic was a safe and viable option.
Future trends in ITE practice
Although this study offers small-scale insights, it highlights potential new trends in ITE practice due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A further larger-scale study will be carried out at the end of this academic year to ascertain if this pattern of experience continues, or if there will be a return back to the pre-Covid ‘bubble’.
Jones, L., & Green, K. (2017). Who teaches primary physical education? Change and transformation through the eyes of subject leaders. Sport, Education and Society, 22(6), 759–771. https://doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2015.1061987
Fletcher, T., & Mandigo, J. (2012). The primary school teacher and physical education: A review of research and implications for Irish physical education. Irish Educational Studies, 31(3), 363–376. https://doi.org/10.1080/03323315.2012.710063
Randall, V., & Griggs, G. (2020). Physical education from the sidelines: Pre-service teachers’ opportunities to teach in English primary schools. Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 49(4), 495–508. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004279.2020.1736598
Sperka, L., & Enright E. (2018). The outsourcing of health and physical education: A scoping review. European Physical Education Review, 24(3), 349–371. https://doi.org/10.1177/1356336X17699430