Children and Young People Education Health and Care Services

What is physical literacy and what is its place in the curriculum?

21 April 2015

Article by Michael Dauncey, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

This picture shows boys playing rugby
Image from Pixabay. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

The Welsh Government has a Programme for Government commitment (pdf53.2kb) to ensure that ‘physical literacy is as important a development skill as reading and writing’. But what is meant by physical literacy? And, in the context of Professor Graham Donaldson’s review of curriculum and assessment (pdf1.7MB), what is its place in the school curriculum?

Physical literacy does not simply mean the same as ‘sport’, ‘physical activity’ or even ‘physical education’. (For an actual definition of each of these, see Appendix B of the Schools and Physical Activity Task and Finish Group’s report (pdf500KB).)

Physical literacy is best understood as the outcome of learning about physical activity or of physical education (PE). In 2014, the International Physical Literacy Association defined physical literacy as:

‘the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life’.

Or in more simple terms:

Skills + Confidence + Motivation + Lots of Opportunities = Physical Literacy.

Sport Wales has published information online as well as this short You Tube video to explain further.

Recent initiatives

There have been a number of Welsh Government initiatives in recent years to increase the emphasis on physical activity. In 2010, it launched a Creating an Active Wales action plan, which focuses on developing physical environments that make it easier for people to be more physically active; supporting children and young people and encouraging adults to live active lives; and widening participation amongst all sectors in society.

Sport Wales is the public body which delivers on the Welsh Government’s objectives in this area and in 2011 published A Vision for Sport in Wales (pdf 1.75MB). This is an overarching vision for how the sport and physical activity agenda can be better delivered.

Sport Wales delivers the Physical Literacy Programme for Schools (PLPS), which is receiving £1.6 million this year from the Welsh Government. Together with local authorities, Sport Wales also helps to deliver schemes such as free swimming, 5×60, Dragon Multiskills and Play to Learn.

Current levels of participation

Every two years, Sport Wales undertakes the School Sport Survey. In 2013, this surveyed 110,000 schoolchildren aged 7 to 16 in almost 1,000 schools. The results were encouraging and showed an increase in the proportion who are ‘Hooked on Sport’ (taking part in sport or physical activity at least three times per week) from 27% in 2011 to 40% in 2013. The gap between boys and girls persists however as these proportions are 44% and 36% respectively.

This infographic shows changes in participation in physical activity across Wales
Infographic from Sport Wales

However, despite the progress in recent years, participation rates are arguably not high enough still with 8.5% of children taking part in no sport outside of the school curriculum. Consider as well that Wales has a higher childhood obesity rate than England with over one in four children overweight or obese (26%).

Task and Finish Group

The Welsh Government established the Schools and Physical Activity Task and Finish Group to implement its commitment of giving physical literacy the same importance as reading and writing. The Group, chaired by former Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, reported in June 2013. It made a single recommendation which was that PE should become a core subject in the national curriculum, alongside English, Welsh (first language), mathematics and science. The Group also called for a National Physical Literacy Framework, similar to what is in place for literacy and numeracy.

Donaldson Review

Following the announcement of the independent Donaldson Review into curriculum and assessment, the Minister for Education and Skills said the recommendation of the Schools and Physical Activity Group, along with those from several other Task and Finish Groups, would be part of Professor Donaldson’s remit. The fact that the Donaldson Review recommends a move away from traditional narrow subject-based learning to six broader ‘Areas of Learning and Experience’ meant that the question of whether PE should be a core subject was not directly addressed by the Review.

Under Professor Donaldson’s proposals, physical activity and what is currently known as PE, would be included in the Health and Well-being Area and contribute to the fourth proposed curriculum purpose which is to enable children and young people to be ‘healthy, confident individuals’. However, the Donaldson report does not discuss in detail the priority that should be given to PE, particularly the concept of ‘physical literacy’, or their status within the curriculum.

Cross Curricular?

The benefits of physical literacy are multiple and not just in the obvious area of health and well-being. Research shows that without the development of physical literacy, many children and youths withdraw from physical activity and sport and are unable to make positive choices about their health, turning to more inactive and unhealthy choices during their leisure time.

Organisations such as Sport Wales therefore believe that physical literacy needs to be delivered on a cross-curricular basis as it is relevant across a wide range of learning. Whereas Professor Donaldson recommends digital competence is given the same priority as literacy and numeracy, thereby creating a third cross-curricular responsibility, this has not been recommended for physical literacy. This could arguably have proved one means of meeting the Welsh Government’s Programme for Government commitment.

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