Schools are vital, but we can all help increase children’s physical activity

9 Nov 2022 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 9 Nov 2022

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash
Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

A new report from the Education and Training Inspectorate found that most schools are falling short of targets for PE. That needs to change, along with many other things, to halt the decline in kids’ physical play.


Most Northern Ireland primary schools fail to provide children with enough physical play, according to a new report.

Department of Education guidance says that kids should get at least two hours of PE every week. However, research from the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) found that 74% of schools fall short of this target.

The paper - A Thematic Evaluation of Physical Education in Primary Schools, published yesterday – said that “52% of schools do not have a sufficient whole-school vision for PE and the strategic planning for the provision is underdeveloped.”

The ETI says that in order to “meet the requirements of the curriculum and allow primary schools to endeavour to meet, at the very least, the minimum statutory guidance for PE” it is critical that schools follow a number of recommendations, including:

  • Governors should ensure principals and teachers give PE its proper place in their individual schools’ strategies
  • Employing authorities and governors need to help school leaders find suitably trained, skilled and confident teachers to lead in planning and delivery of PE
  • Schools need to balance their curricula to ensure enough time is set aside for PE
  • Primary school teacher training should better prepare future teachers for PE, while established teachers should have help to develop these skills during their career
  • An assessment of the schools’ estate to ensure appropriate facilities are in place for all children to access PE

The report also said that the pandemic had a significant impact on PE in schools and on children’s physical activity.

This is true, but as a standalone fact it is misleading. Lack of physical activity amongst Northern Irish children is a long-term issue exacerbated by Covid-19, rather than something caused by the pandemic.

Research from 2016 found that Northern Ireland’s children had the lowest rates of physical activity among kids across Europe.

Meanwhile, a November 2020 paper from the research team at Stormont produced very similar findings to the new ETI study, suggesting that schools “are an ideal setting to increase physical activity” in the face of a general decline in childhood exercise but that “several structural issues exist that prevent schools from harnessing these opportunities” – issues that have been covered in Scope previously.


According to the new ETI report: “In August 2021, DE issued additional guidance on curriculum planning for the 2021/22 school year. The guidance emphasises that both formal PE and daily outdoor physical activity have a central role to play in our schools and offer important opportunities for both active learning and increased children’s engagement. Additionally, the guidance references studies which have shown that many children have had significantly reduced levels of physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

That guidance notes the importance of children having access to at least two hours of PE per week within the curriculum, due to:

  • the positive impact that physical exercise can have on children’s health and wellbeing
  • the benefits in the development of resilience and progression of skills, knowledge and understanding in the range of activity areas that make up the PE curriculum

The picture within the schools the ETI assessed, however, was mixed.

“In a significant minority (48%) of the schools, physical education is a highly-valued and prioritised aspect of the children’s learning and statutory curricular entitlement. In these schools, there is an experienced, knowledgeable and skilled curriculum leader in post to co-ordinate and oversee the provision and be an effective role model for high-quality learning and teaching in PE…

“In the remaining schools (52%), the vision and strategic planning are underdeveloped and not effective enough. The schools’ prioritisation and perceived pressure to deliver literacy, numeracy and information and communication technology (ICT) outcomes, and recovery from post-COVID-19 lockdowns, are among the issues reported as impacting adversely on the development of the PE curriculum. The delivery of PE within the school curriculum is not sufficiently prioritised by all staff despite the DE guidance.”

In many ways it’s understandable that, if schools are going to have shortcomings, they will manifest this way. Is it a shock that reading, writing, maths and computers take precedence? Which is not to excuse the situation.

Just last month, Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey joined SportNI, together with their equivalents from the Republic of Ireland, to endorse the importance of “physical literacy”, meaning “the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding that enables a person to value and participate in physical activity throughout life.”

There are good reasons for this.


An active life improves your health, both physical and mental. Healthy children tend to be healthier adults – and this is good for everyone.

As a pure policy proposition, it also makes economic sense (in the long term) because healthier adults put less pressure health services which, let’s face it, could do with some help. However, the main issue is not the impact on public services, it’s the impact on our children and young people.

Child development is not just about reading and writing. It’s about social skills, emotional fluency and resilience, and simple physical health. PE and other active play helps with everything.

But, of course, physical activity prepares people for more academic learning. Proper amounts of PE – and other physical play, this is not just a schools issue, it is about development in general – will help kids with their literacy and numeracy.

According to the ETI: “Well-planned and coherent PE is a statutory entitlement for every child. Children who engage in regular, high-quality PE: think in different ways; are more creative and imaginative; and, understand the relationship between physical activity and good health.”

The target for change here is not just schools. They are a big part of it, of course, and probably the best place to start but there is a wider and deeper issue here than our educational institutions – and a longer timeframe than the past two and a half years.

Northern Ireland’s Mental Health Champion, Prof Siobhan O’Neill, took to Twitter to comment on the new ETI report, saying: “This story is so very worrying. If only we realised how important physical activity is for mental health & a pre-requisite for learning. If only we realised how important PE is for children's health & development.

“Children need 60mins of exercise every day (420 mins a week) - the primary school PE guidelines are only 120 minutes A WEEK. So they would need to be getting about 300 mins a week via active travel, active breaks, & after school/ weekend activities…

“PE as a subject, is fundamental for healthy bodies & minds yet: "over a third of schools involved in the evaluation were critical of how primary teachers were trained to teach PE during their university education, "particularly for those children with special educational needs"…

“It's definitely not the fault of the schools, it's about our values and it can be changed if there is a willingness and a recognition of how essential it is for our wee ones.”

This is an area where real change is achievable. We can all look at the state of the economy and public services and worry greatly about many things – and with good reason. But this is a problem we can certainly fix. Physical activity does not need to be expensive, and this is not an area that is just about the state. Parents, wider family, the community – almost everyone can help.

For all that to happen, a change in attitude is needed.

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