PE for a changing world

Ali Oliver, CEO of the Youth Sport Trust discusses the need for physical education to adapt in today’s school environment and provides insight into Play Unified – a campaign using sport to break down barriers for young people with intellectual disabilities

The world, and the UK in particular, is entering a fascinating period of change. Whether you look at politics, the environment, the technological revolution or health, the sense of change is inescapable and that is the same for schools across the country.

Funding from the sugar tax levy will provide around £320 million a year to primary schools from September 2017-2020 through the Primary PE and Sport Premium. If this is invested well, it could not only help to tackle obesity and inactivity in young people, but also contribute to improvements in social and emotional wellbeing – two significant challenges facing the next generation.

While this is excellent news, at the Youth Sport Trust we are equally aware of the need for a spotlight on secondary provision with an emerging trend towards declining curriculum time for physical education and a lower emphasis on extracurricular provision.

Aside from the worrying rise in childhood obesity, recent reports have found that secondary school pupils are suffering from stress and anxiety in the run up to exams, on top of the natural pressures of developing as a teenager.

Daily physical activity, an hour in which hearts are racing for all the right reasons, can help young people manage levels of anxiety and help improve overall concentration. At the same time, our sport inspired programmes have proven helpful to young people both in developing resilience and coping skills which can impact on improved classroom, and exam performance.


At the Youth Sport Trust, we believe that young people have never had a greater need for PE – for their physical, social and emotional wellbeing.

However, physical education and school sport are heading towards a cross‑roads. Either we will reach a point where it is understood that PE has to exist for young people to be well enough to learn and equipped with the interpersonal skills needed to succeed in their school lives and beyond, or PE could completely disappear from the curriculum.

This is an opportunity for schools to modernise their PE curriculum, with PE standing for Physical and Emotional education and PE lessons focused on high levels of physical activity that maximise the ‘teachable moments’ that arise from sports endeavour. For too long, PE has lacked a clear and widely understood purpose for pupils in the UK. Change is overdue.

PE can be a huge force for good in schools and it should be treated as such. Aside from the obvious health benefits, school sport is a valuable vehicle for developing off-pitch skills that stay with pupils throughout their lives, from fair play to tolerance and courage. There is a wealth of research demonstrating the positive benefits of sport.

Sport England recently declared that: “Participation in physical activity and sport has been shown to be effective for reducing depression, anxiety, psychological distress, emotional disturbance. Taking part in sport, and spectating, have a positive impact on the wellbeing and happiness of individuals.”


At the Youth Sport Trust, we have created the concept of ‘CARE for their future’, The four pillars of CARE are creativity, aspiration, resilience and empathy. These are the attributes we know sport can build and have an emerging evidence base of the impact of our programmes and teacher training on these outcomes.

We believe that critical success factors in terms of a new era for PE are the development of young people’s voice, leadership skills and ultimately their empowerment. We believe that empowering young people to be the architects of the change they want to see, and then becoming peer leaders bringing that change to life, is an incredibly powerful way to move the subject on and create real meaning and value for the next generation.

By putting young people at the heart of PE and school sport, young people, teachers, whole schools, and the wider community will become more engaged and enriched.


One example of this in practice is Play Unified, a global movement developed by Special Olympics and delivered domestically in partnership with the Youth Sport Trust. Play Unified ultimately hopes to create the ‘Unified Generation’, a generation where there will be a level playing field for young people with and without intellectual disabilities.
The crux of Play Unified is simple, bringing young people with and without intellectual disabilities (ID) together, both on and off the field of play. In doing so, the campaign hopes to break down barriers and tackle intolerance faced by young people with ID.

Play Unified is inspired by the principle that training together and playing together is a quick path to understanding, acceptance and friendship.

This is already being shown in action in schools across the country. We have started small with Play Unified, working with 200 schools, both mainstream and special schools. I have been blown away by the engagement levels of these establishments.

The campaign is already oversubscribed, our two-year target was to sign up 200 schools, something which we completed within the first six months of the campaign. Clearly Play Unified has struck a chord with young people and schools in the same way it did with the Youth Sport Trust.

Play Unified’s first year results have far exceeded our expectations both in terms of demand and enthusiasm. We have recruited 544 Young Ambassadors, 5,400 practitioners (teachers, learning assistants etc) and reached more than 18,000 young people through a series of summits up and down the country.


Play Unified gives me real hope for the future and feeds my belief that sport really can change the world. While the focus of Play Unified is a more accepting and unified world for young people with intellectual disabilities, what it is showing us is that the tolerance, understanding and mutual respect that is so desperately needed in today’s world can be achieved through sport.

Playing together really can mean growing together.

This generation is characterised by so many characteristics that make young people inspiring and a powerful force for good. Today’s young people are more altruistic, more informed, more world aware than previous generations and if ever there was a time for the ‘Unified Generation’ to be forged, it is now.

At a time where the emotional and physical wellbeing of our young people is so important, particularly for equipping them as effective learners, the Youth Sport Trust is committed to driving change so that PE becomes an integral part of the curriculum.

A changing world demands a new style of PE. Play Unified is just one shining example of the role that school sport can play in changing young people’s outlook, if they are empowered to drive that change.

The Youth Sport Trust will continue to advocate sport at every possible opportunity for young people. I said earlier that this is a ‘sink or swim’ moment for school sport – and we are determined to ensure that PE prevails.

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