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Exclusive: Primary schools are outsourcing PE despite £2.2bn investment

Research reveals how the legacy of the 2012 Olympics turned into the “deskilling” of a generation of teachers.

By Vicky Randall and Gerald Griggs

The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London were billed as the “Legacy Games”. The euphoria in the lead-up was palpable. London was poised to host a global event that, through the power of sport, promised to have a major impact on health, education and culture, as well as boosting the economy through ambitious infrastructure projects.

Physical education (PE) in primary schools in England was to be a significant benefactor, with the aim of inspiring the youngest school-aged children. Renewed investment in PE would be crucial when it came to delivering much of the Olympic Games’ legacy. The prime minister at the time, David Cameron, pledged a commitment to school sport in a speech delivered just before the games started. He said: “The Olympic spirit of taking part can make a real difference to young people.”

But as the tenth anniversary of the London Olympics approaches, our research – undertaken over the past six years – tells a very different story. Despite a direct investment of more than £2.2bn into primary PE since 2012 – making it the highest-funded subject at primary age – most PE lessons in the primary sector are outsourced to sports coaches and instructors who often possess “limited qualifications [and] a minimal knowledge of the pupil recipients”, according to a high-profile cross-party group of MPs and experts called in to investigate the funding.

Our research, published with The Conversation as part of its Insights series, has identified a clear failure of this Olympic investment – known as the Primary PE and School Sport Premium (or “premium”) – to deliver on one of its stated aims of increasing the “confidence, knowledge and skills of all [primary] staff in teaching PE and sport”. We found there is little evidence of any legacy of improved PE teaching within England’s primary school sector. Final-year primary education trainees who took part in our latest research told us it was difficult for them to even observe a primary PE lesson as part of their teacher training. For most, teaching a PE lesson was not an option.

The London Olympics windfall has instead seen staff teachers sidelined in favour of an army of outsourced providers, looking for business in a well-funded marketplace for the best part of a decade. Many schools say they are happy to pay for this extra expertise and are happy with the work the private sports coaches do. But there has been a striking lack of auditing of how this taxpayers’ money has been spent.

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There have been 61 different permutations of who has been teaching PE to children in English primary schools, ranging from accredited sports coaches to parent helpers and teaching assistants.

With the government still in discussions about the future of the premium beyond the current academic year, and amid growing budgetary pressures, the failure to build primary PE teachers’ skills could lead to a rapid erosion of provision should the funding be cut.

This has in part been allowed to happen by the lack of accountability over the use of this money. Earlier this year, Ofsted concluded that “it is still unclear what precise and sustained positive effect [the premium] is having on teachers’ expertise and pupils’ outcomes in PE”.

So what has happened to the £2.2bn of taxpayers’ money, and what is the real legacy of London 2012 on the teaching profession? We turned to primary schools and recently qualified teachers to find the answers. Perhaps surprisingly in the wake of London 2012, no such extra funding was invested into secondary schools, so the promise of change through PE was left almost entirely to the primary sector.

Since 2015, we have analysed more than 1,800 school websites and documents detailing primary PE investment. We have also surveyed 1,200 trainee teachers and conducted a further survey of 625 trainee teachers.

The aim was to understand and scope their experience of teaching PE. Our culminated findings have huge implications for the future of primary PE teaching.

The post-2012 era triggered a flurry of political interest and financial investment into primary PE. A government document at the timeInspired by 2012: The Legacy from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games – heralded: “Sport should be a central and important part of any school. Great schools have long known that sporting excellence and participation, alongside strong cultural opportunities, go hand in hand with high academic standards. To support this aim, physical education will remain a compulsory part of the curriculum at all four key stages of education, with a greater emphasis on competitive sport.”

The upshot of this publication was the announcement that an initial ring-fenced investment of £150m per year would be made to primary PE. It would be payable directly to all maintained primary schools in England. The premium was later doubled in 2017 to £320m per year, made possible by a tax on sugary drinks.

With investment accrued from three government departments – the Department for Education (DfE), the Department of Health, and the Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sport – the premium was meant to have a major impact on young people’s education, health and sport participation.

But crucially it was also supposed to improve the confidence and competence of primary teachers to teach PE. This was made explicit through the premium’s five key indicators as outlined by the DfE, and most obviously the third, which was “increased confidence, knowledge and skills of all staff in teaching PE and sport”.

Initial government guidance about how schools could spend this extra money was flexible. Head teachers were given autonomy to determine how to achieve the goal of improving the quality of PE and sports provision in their schools.

To this day, primary PE remains the highest-funded subject in the school curriculum, when you take into account additional funding. As a contemporary comparison, mathematics – a core area of the curriculum, typically taught to children on a daily basis and part of a national standardised annual testing programme – has received a total extra investment of £52m over nine years, on top of what schools get in the annual budgets. This includes £11m of additional government funding since 2013, across primary and secondary schools, to support a “mathematics mastery” agenda. This extra funding is dwarfed compared to the £2.2bn provided to primary schools for PE over ten years through the premium.

And the investment into primary PE continues to rise year-on-year, with few questions being asked about what impact it is having. Based on our evidence, however, it would seem that the funding is without infrastructure and accountability, and has created cracks in the foundation of primary PE teaching that might now be irreversible.

In the absence of any transparent and independent review of the premium, university teacher training providers in England commissioned the All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood to look at the issues around it. The 2019 report highlighted a number of mounting concerns stemming from the funding – the most prominent being how the premium was left to plug the gaps in school budgets by outsourcing PE to private specialists who were “not qualified” to teach PE. As mentioned above, the parliamentary report concluded that “the premium has seemingly had the unfortunate and unforeseen consequence of virtually ‘ceding’ the subject in its entirety to non-qualified individuals; specifically, sports coaches/instructors with limited qualifications, a minimal knowledge of the pupil recipients, and imperfect understanding of key pedagogical matters such as inclusion, progression and assessment”.

Ofsted, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Schools, has written two critical reports on the effectiveness of the premium. Its March 2022 report questioned the overall “positive effect” on teachers and pupils alike when it came to PE, while its 2018 report noted that some schools were not following guidance on how the premium should be spent. Ofsted is not responsible for auditing the premium or tracking its spending, however, compounding the overall lack of accountability around it.

It is important to underline that we do not believe the premium has been a total failure. Some of the key indicators have been met and many private sports coaches are doing a great job when it comes to teaching primary PE. Indeed, all of the schools we sampled in 2018 were clear that the funding had had a significant impact on how they deliver PE.

Nevertheless, there is a total lack of recorded figures or evidence related to premium spending, and that is a concern. Investigations attached to our 2018 research revealed that there were significant challenges with accountability, quality assurance and sustainability. And the testimony from head teachers overwhelmingly revealed there was little or no concern for long- or even medium-term strategy in PE delivery.

Perhaps an even bigger problem is that this funding was supposed to be sustainable and of long-term benefit to primary education. The word “sustainability” was attached to the premium from the start. In short, what schools invest in now should have a long-lasting impact in the future. Within the field of conservation, sustainability is often associated with renewal or regrowth; what is lost is then replaced.

But in the context of primary PE, outsourced providers have now replaced swathes of teachers for the best part of a decade. And this has led to the deskilling of a profession that was already lacking confidence and competence to teach PE in primary schools.

Guidance from the DfE states that if premium funding is used to buy in external expertise, it should be done so to upskill teachers, not to replace them. But according to the trainee teachers we spoke with, this upskilling was only happening in 4.5 per cent of the lessons they observed (where a qualified teacher worked alongside an external sports coach to glean valuable PE knowledge).

There have been warning signs for years. Our earlier research findings revealed that the use of external sports coaches, who do not hold primary teaching qualifications, has been growing for the best part of two decades, raising questions about how such an approach could be sustainable without continued levels of investment.

Another 2018 study we conducted investigated more detailed experiences of seven schools in one local authority. Through semi-structured interviews with head teachers, the study aimed to find out how the premium had been spent and what impact it had had. The sample of schools demonstrated there were no robust or transparent mechanisms for recording the impact of the funding. This is despite the government stipulating this as a requirement of the premium, with guidelines published by both the Association for Physical Education and the Youth Sport Trust linked to the DfE guidance.

So what would happen if the funding was removed? One obvious solution would be for primary schools to return to delivering PE via their existing teaching workforce and stop the expensive outsourcing programme. But two decades of government policies have quietly eroded the PE expertise that once could be found in every school. Restoring this would undoubtedly require an increase in school staffing budgets.

When the DfE published its Qualifying to Teach document in 2002, it specified that trainee teachers were no longer required to hold a subject specialism beyond their basic general primary training (for example, in PE, science, art or history). Consequently, many universities moved from offering three- and four-year undergraduate teaching courses to one-year postgraduate courses. One likely suggestion for this was to speed up the time it took for teachers to become qualified and reduce the cost of doing so. If placements can be done in school too that’s even better as it’s someone else’s staff, time and facility.

The leaching of specialist expertise from primary PE had begun. We are now two decades on from the DfE’s revised professional standards detailed in Qualifying to Teach and two decades on from outsourced PE “specialists” routinely entering primary schools. In short, most primary teachers under the age of 40 have entered the profession with limited and generalist teacher training. They don’t always have a related degree and have little opportunity to teach PE.

If schools chose to deliver PE via their existing workforce, and if the premium funding were removed, the quality of provision would be patchy and inconsistent at best. While some schools may well have a PE graduate, others will have no one either interested or qualified to lead the subject.

This government has nailed its colours to the mast with its so-called levelling up agenda, which includes action on healthcare, well-being and standards of primary educational attainment. If it is serious about delivering these, it cannot ignore how we provide PE at primary level. As we await an announcement from government on whether the premium will continue in 2022-23, it is timely to reflect on what tangible impact the funding has had on the physical education of young people to date.

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