Nobody envies the timetable architect in any school. It is impossible to please everyone, and there is a danger that the compromise satisfies no one. If there was a perfect way, it would have been discovered long ago. The search for the perfect model continues through endless experimentation.
Some subjects suffer more than others from inappropriate time allocations. PE and Games probably head that list, with timings that need to accommodate unique factors such as changing times, movement to facilities that are often on the margins of a school site – sometimes even a bus ride away.
Within the subject lies a range of activities which each have different optimum timings. Swimming and gymnastics are entirely different from Netball – which is different again from Cricket. There are additional factors to consider such as the inevitability that many outdoor lessons will take place in imperfect weather.
It is, however, remarkable how many schools operate timetables that significantly disadvantage PE and Games. It is widely recognised that physical activity needs to make itself attractive to pupils, but less commonly acknowledged that inappropriate lesson length is a major factor which determines pupil (and teacher) engagement. Sessions face the constant challenge of being long enough to ensure progression within and between lessons, but short enough to be able to maintain enthusiasm and physical output.
Games sessions vary in length from 40 minutes to two and a half hours. Often an afternoon – especially Wednesday - is allocated to allow time for school matches. An unintended consequence of this is to leave the pupils not selected for teams with a forbiddingly long ordeal. These are the things that fuel disengagement.
Schools should be informed by the lengths of time that adults choose for exercise. Swimming and running rarely exceeds 30 minutes: sports teams train for between 60 and 90 minutes. When the weather is bad, it is frequently abbreviated.
PE and Games has a challenge to impact positively on all pupils. Government guidelines specify a total weekly time allocation, but not how it should be distributed. Anyone who has taught games to small children, reluctant adolescents or in cold and windy weather will testify that the length of the session is a vital factor impacting lesson quality. The subject needs to lobby powerfully to influence the timetable. It may be the most significant single factor.
Even lesson time is a misleading metric. The relevant factor is the amount of activity time: what’s left after the travelling, changing, registering, and equipment distribution. For the subject to have maximum impact, the great majority of PE classes would benefit from 30-40 minutes activity time, with outdoor games sessions having 60-75 minutes. Then the subject stands best chance of realising its twin ambitions: engagement and progress.
Neil Rollings, 9 January 2020