Reflections on PE and FMS

“Research shows Aussie kids can’t throw or catch as well as 30 years ago[1] 

Recently I have been revisiting fundamental movement skill literature as I am coordinating the core HPE topic for undergrad generalist primary school teachers, and it has led me to reflect on why the decline in movement competency continues despite persistent research pointing to this for many years. Does PE and its dominant curriculum expression have anything to do with this phenomenon?

When I was at primary school in the 1970s, we had daily physical activity breaks, school finished at lunch on Wednesday and everyone went off for interschool sport or sport practice, and our primary teachers on yard duty went around telling us at recess and lunch to 'get up and kick the footy and run around'; similar occurred in high school, and when classes finished at lunch on Wednesday we went off to intraschool sport or recreation activities like windsurfing.

When I went through teachers college completing a Bachelor of Physical Education in the early-mid 1980s there was a heavy emphasis on teaching for movement competency. While the paradigm was clearly behavourist, with teaching for movement model replication the content focus, leading to closed drill technique testing and ‘skills stations’, we were left in no doubt a core function of the PE teacher was to develop individual movement skill competency, and to coach school or community teams was a natural extension of our professional responsibility to promote movement competency more broadly in the community. Competency presumed confidence to choose to be active or perhaps self-efficacy, and contribute to the habit of mind that led one to wish pursue an active life. As for role modelling, all of my lecturers were active coaches (some having coached at international level) and most were former PE teachers. 

During a PE school teaching career that spanned the 1980s-1990s-2000s, I experienced repeatedly the influence of health promotion and exercise/physical activity professionals eyeing PE as a site for “interventions” to maximise step counts, heart rate, MVPA and many things other than movement competence. Messages implicit and explicit, included - Expose young people to many different forms of sport and PA so they might find something they like and choose to pursue beyond the school gate, at some stage in their life; Run students at the start of class, or maximise MVPA, to get heart rates up and so PE can help prevent the ‘obesity crises’; and, PE is a preventative health measure because it contributes to physical activity accumulation. Rarely was the inherent educative value of PE asserted in these conversations, and not often did movement competence form part of the health promotion message. I cannot help thinking that perhaps PE teaching was subtly being deskilled. After all, if PE is nothing substantially more than an activity space contributing to physical activity accumulation during the school day a school does not need a PE program. A program delivered by sport development officers, or a physical activity program staffed by industry activity program leaders, can do the job of a ‘come and try’, or ‘huff and puff’, or a 'brain break' energiser program, when the emphasis is on content experiences and not education.

Perhaps then not surprisingly the Australian Government Independent Sport Panel in 2009 recommended PE and Sport become a separate learning area in the new Australian Curriculum so PE could recapture its identity. 

Perhaps it is worthwhile going back to the Australian Government Independent Sport Panel and revisit the meaning of this recommendation? - after all, if the HPE learning area is meant to educate for active and healthy living the current marriage of convenience between Health Education and Physical Education, created out of the National Statements and Profiles in the mid-1990’s, isn’t judged well by the recent Report Card on the Physical Activity of Children and Young People[2]. 

The Australian Government Independent Sport Panel (2009) recommendations: to make PE a curriculum priority, mandatory exposure to PE teaching in pre-service primary school teacher education, regulate a minimum time requirement for PE in curriculum time, and sport programs during the span of hours of the school day - remain prescient if primary schools are to have the specialist knowledge and curriculum time dedicated to educate for movement skill competency. Emphasising this perspective, The Active Healthy Kids Australia 2016 Report indicated that for primary school students, only 33–39% engage in at least 120 minutes of PE per week. It is well understood that volume of practice + guidance by quality teaching/mentoring is the equation for competency in any field. On the figures indicated above it is clear many primary schools are not providing adequate time and/or the PE expertise to develop young peoples’ movement competency for active and healthy living. (State-based data indicated that for secondary school students, only 27–49% engage in at least 120 minutes of PE per week).

Can’t throw, can’t catch: Australian kids are losing that sporting edge”[3]

McGrane et al (2016) FMS study concluded an emergent relationship between skill proficiency and self-confidence, and the potential interaction between FMS and physical self-confidence have influence on physical activity levels. Bardid et al (2015) research concluded motor competence in childhood is an important determinant of physical activity and physical fitness later in life. Lubans et al (2010) found strong evidence for a positive association between FMS competency and physical activity in children and adolescents. Gallahue & Ozmun (2002) explain that while FMS are the foundation for a physically active life, their development is not automatic, and cannot be assumed. The Australian Government Preventative Health Task Force (2009)[4] called for training and support for PE teachers ‘to motivate and inspire children to engage in physical activity’. I would add, ‘to teach for movement competence that enables engagement in physical activity now and in the future’.

The HPE curriculum in every Australian state and territory is more similar than different and all have an explicit focus on the development of FMS in the early primary school years. There is an old adage in teaching that what is tested and measured gets taught. Evidence of declining movement competency, lack of time for teaching PE explicitly in many primary schools, and lack of curriculum time enabling attainment of the curriculum achievement standard expectations even when specialist PE teachers are employed, suggest to me it is time to debate whether FMS achievement should be nationally tested and reported so it, and PE, can become an education priority.  

*ACHPER[i] recently voiced concern about the recent new evidence showing that we are putting our kids at early higher risk of chronic disease and impeding their academic progress by failing to provide quality Health and Physical Education in all schools. 


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