Not all teachers have the confidence and skill set to ensure all students are included in school PE lessons. Kat Southwell, Active Kids for All manager at the English Federation of Disability Sport, explains what is being done to change this perception and how disabled pupils can benefit.
In many schools around the UK, pupils are grouped according to ability in core subjects including science, English and maths. So why are there so many young disabled children that are still being excluded during physical education (PE) lessons as a result of their needs not being met? This raises questions of how well PE teachers and school staff understand the ability of their disabled pupils, and how confident and prepared they are to support them in fully accessing the PE curriculum?
The English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS), a national charity dedicated to making active lives possible for disabled people, knows that while most teachers have the ability to deliver inclusively, not all have the confidence or understanding. A 2011 survey featuring hundreds of young disabled people revealed that a third felt they did not participate in PE lessons as much as their non-disabled peers. Of those, 33 per cent felt this was because of their impairment; for wheelchair users, it was 54 per cent.
Working in partnership with Sainsbury’s, the home country disability sport organisations, the British Paralympic Association and the Youth Sport Trust, we have developed the Sainsbury’s Active Kids for All Inclusive PE training. The free training, which has been delivered to over 7,500 teachers, trainee teachers and school staff across the United Kingdom, supports PE teachers to deliver an inclusive PE curriculum to pupils of all abilities. The training helps to prevent disabled pupils from being excluded from PE lessons and ensures they have the same experiences of school sport as their classmates.
Inclusive PE in mainstream schools
For decades, as school sports developed throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s, many young disabled pupils were often excluded from PE lessons, either having to stand on the side-lines or spend time in the library while their non-disabled classmates enjoyed being active. EFDS has spoken to disabled people regarding their experiences of PE lessons, both positive and negative.
Wheelchair rugby player Martin has Cerebral Palsy and recalls that, when he attended a mainstream compressive school during the 1980s, ‘inclusive sport was non-existent’ with the school running PE lessons in cross country and football in which he was not physically capable of participating. By the time Martin neared his O-levels, it was decided that sport should play no further part in his curriculum. Martin told us that ‘by the time it came to the final two years of High School it was agreed that whenever PE was on I would go to the library’. Martin’s experience of a lack of inclusion damaged his self-confidence and he hated ‘being the only disabled kid in a school of 1,200’.
Unfortunately, 20 years later not much had changed for Chloe, a 19 year old with muscular dystrophy, who attended a mainstream secondary school in the 2000s. Chloe commented: “I didn’t have a great time at the start of my school career, with teachers not understanding what I could do in sport.”
Despite wanting to get involved in physical activity and trying wheelchair sports when she was in Year 8, Chloe recalls how many people at school struggled with the concept that she was able to walk but also used a wheelchair.
Chloe explained how she was told that ‘PE worked in black and white, so someone who wanted things modifying was too difficult a concept for them’.
Chloe wanted to prove sport was for her and was inspired by a wheelchair tennis day organised by Active Gloucestershire. She has since gone on enjoy tennis, basketball and, more recently, archery.
Equipping for inclusion
We know that PE teachers do not purposefully exclude disabled pupils from their lessons, rather they haven’t been equipped with the skills and knowledge to fully include all pupils regardless of impairment.
Chloe agrees, and told us: “Looking back, it’s quite clear to me that my school wasn’t accommodating because they simply didn’t have the experience of working with someone like me. I had a rubbish time there, but I hope if nothing else that they learned from me.”
This is the case for many teachers and trainee teachers who often qualify without learning how to adapt their PE lessons for individuals’ specific needs.
Recently, two newly-qualified teachers attended an Inclusive PE Training workshop as they said they felt that during their initial teacher training they had not gained a basic understanding of how to include all pupils in PE lessons.
This is an issue highlighted by a teacher from Davenant Foundation School in Essex, who has said: “One of the things teachers struggle with is the confidence to include disabled students in mainstream PE lessons and to properly adapt lessons for all students.”
The provision of this training provides teachers with the knowledge they may not have previously had to support young disabled people to have positive experiences of school sport, just as Chris did when he attended a school in Bolton in the 1990s.
Chris has spina bifida and stopped walking when he was 10, meaning that he was using a wheelchair full-time by time he started at secondary school.
His experiences of school sport were very different to those of Martin and Chloe, as Chris believes that ‘in terms of adapting lessons, my teachers were excellent. They would modify equipment for me – I remember them cutting down a hockey stick in the woodwork shed so that I could use it in my chair’. Chris told us that he had ‘the impression that they were learning about inclusive teaching alongside me’.
All this adjustment and encouragement reaped success – Chris secured a C grade at PE GCSE, developing into an international athlete and representing Great Britain at three different World Cups playing three different sports.
George, a 22-year-old who attended a mainstream school in Warwickshire during the 2000s, had a similar experience to Chris with his PE provision being excellent.
George said: “Most of the time I had very positive experiences of PE and was able to join in most sports with the rest of the class.”
However, George concedes that his requirements were a learning curve for the school, his parents and himself, citing the example of rugby lessons as a negative experience.
He explains: “We were taught rugby, a sport that due to my disability I absolutely hated playing. While my classmates were all participating fully, I was left either standing on the sidelines in the cold or being made to run lengths of the field by me teacher as an alternative activity.
“At times it got to the stage where my parents would be writing notes to my teacher excusing me from the lesson, or I would fake an injury, something that I never liked to do.”
Through discussions between his parents, the SEN department and the PE department, the situation gradually improved and instead of playing rugby George was able to join the middle group in the fitness suite. This suited him far better as he could participate in PE at his own rate.
As an example of working with the pupil and his parents to best cater for the needs of the pupil, George shows what can be achieved and what impact inclusive PE can have.
Making inclusion accessible
So what can we take away from George, Martin, Chloe and Chris’ experiences of school PE lessons? That accessible PE lessons have improved significantly over recent decades and with support and the correct training both before and after qualifying, all teachers and school support staff can be enabled to provide inclusive PE lessons to all pupils for decades to come.
This is perhaps best summarised in the words of George, a recent school-leaver: “I think every mainstream school in the country has a responsibility to provide accessible PE, as well as making sure teachers are aware that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to teaching children sport.”