Subject Inspection – Physical Education (PE)

This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Paul’s Community College. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Physical Education and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over one day during which the inspector visited lessons and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teachers. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.

SUBJECT PROVISION AND WHOLE SCHOOL SUPPORT

St. Paul’s Community College is a co-educational school under the auspices of the City of Waterford Vocational Education Committee (VEC) with a current enrolment of 505 students. A wide range of curricular programmes is on offer to students in the school and Physical Education is being delivered by two experienced physical education teachers. The time allocated to the subject is a standard, double period for all year groups. Although this time allocation is not uncommon in post-primary schools, it still falls short of the two hours per week recommended in the Department of Education and Science Rules and Programmes for Secondary Schools 2004-2005 and it is recommended that the school work towards allocating this level of provision for Physical Education. It is noted that, along with the double period provided to all years, Transition Year (TY) students have an additional three periods per week for a module of health and recreation for eight weeks of the year and that Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) students have three periods per week for their module of Leisure and Recreation. This additional level of provision is commended.

It is of concern however, that Physical Education is, in effect, an optional subject in sixth year as the school allows students who do not wish to participate in Physical Education the option of not doing the subject. Although the provision of the option to participate in Physical Education in sixth year could be viewed as affirming the right of more mature students to make choices about their exercise and physical activity involvements, it is nonetheless regarded as essential that all students are guaranteed timetabled provision in Physical Education each week. By making Physical Education an optional subject for these students, there is a risk that the school may inadvertently give the impression that Physical Education is a low priority for them and that participating in physical activity is something that can be discarded when students are preparing for examinations. Although it is accepted that the school encourages all sixth-year students to avail of the opportunity provided to participate in Physical Education, it is nonetheless recommended that the optional nature of the subject in sixth year be reviewed. The high drop-out rates from physical activity among students in their late teens, commented on in a variety of publications (National Task Force on Obesity Report 2005, School Children and Sport in Ireland, ESRI 2005), place an onus on schools nationally to do whatever they can to maintain physical activity participation levels of these students. Despite the fact that participation in Physical Education should not be optional, it would not be inappropriate, however, that senior cycle students, particularly sixth-year students, be afforded some role in deciding the nature of the activity in which they are involved in physical education lessons for some, or all, of the school year. This should help to ensure a greater sense of engagement among all sixth-year students and could be viewed as an acknowledgement of their increased maturity.

The facilities available for the teaching of Physical Education are very good and include a full-sized hall, fitness suite, outdoor hardcourt area and field. The school is commended for its plans to resurface the hardcourt area as it has been subject to some ravelling in the recent past. The school is further commended for its efforts to provide an outdoor pitch on-site, as the present field which the school uses for physical education lessons has an uneven surface and is prone to water logging, particularly in winter months. The provision of a suitable pitch would be of considerable benefit to students during physical education lessons and would also help to overcome the present situation whereby the school has to negotiate the use of outside facilities to play competitive field games.

PLANNING AND PREPARATION

Planning at both a whole-school level and with regard to individual lessons is good. The school is involved in the School Development Planning Initiative and a range of policies, including admissions, anti-bullying, substance abuse and code of behaviour have been produced and the school is in the process of reviewing a number of other policies. There is a subject plan in place for Physical Education with a list of topics outlined for each year group. This range of activities is reasonably broad, although some effort to reduce the amount of games covered at junior cycle is recommended. With this in mind, it is recommended that the school become involved in the formal implementation of the Junior Cycle Physical Education (JCPE) syllabus as it has both the qualified personnel and suitable facilities to enable its implementation. This syllabus has the capacity to greatly enhance the physical education experience of junior cycle students by bringing a clear structure and providing greater breadth and balance in the range of topics covered. Despite the fact that the school is not currently involved in the formal implementation of the JCPE syllabus, it has to be acknowledged that the physical education department is using much of the syllabus materials, downloaded from the JCPE website (www.jcpe.ie), for planning in Physical Education. This level of initiative is commended. Further areas for development in the subject plan might include documenting a range of teaching methodologies to be used in physical education lessons and strategies for use in assessment in Physical Education.

The range of activities planned for TY is varied and interesting and provides students with opportunities for learning that are not possible in other years. Among the activities provided are modules in karate, self-defence, health-related fitness and First Aid, all of which are taken by all students. Bowling, aquatics, horse riding, pitch and putt, surfing and canoeing are also provided. The provision of this range of activities is highly commended as it adds great variety to the physical education programme and is in keeping with the spirit and ethos of TY. The use of outside coaches to assist in the delivery of some of these activities is also commended. In particular, a coaching module involving the local development officer from the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) is particularly noteworthy. As part of this module, TY students not only learn the basic skills of rugby but also learn how to coach rugby to younger students. Students who achieve to a high level during this module are then given the chance, under the direction of their teacher and the development officer, to coach and referee games involving first-year students during a tag-rugby blitz. The provision of such learning opportunities is highly commended as this helps to consolidate learning and enables students to acquire a greater level of insight and understanding than would be possible from merely learning the skills of the game. TY students also have an opportunity to attend a course in outdoor education at an outdoor education centre and this facility is also available to LCA students. Hillwalking, swimming and orienteering are also provided to fifth-year and sixth-year students.

A good range of extracurricular and co-curricular activities is also available in the school, catering for a significant number of students. The main areas of provision include soccer, Gaelic football and hurling for boys, with basketball and some camogie being provided for girls. Table tennis is popular for both boys and girls. The commitment of teachers to providing this range of activities is commended and the school, in keeping its programme of extracurricular and co-curricular activities under regular review, is aware of the need to involve more girls in such activities. Such review is applauded and it is suggested that the publication Consultations with Teenage Girls On Being and Getting Active – Health Promotion Department, North Western Health Board 2004 may prove useful to the school in identifying strategies to increase the involvement of girls in these activities.

TEACHING AND LEARNING

The quality of teaching and learning observed during the inspection was good and students were fully engaged by the tasks set during physical education lessons. Lessons were characterised by good student-teacher relationships, with students co-operating well with their teachers and each other.

Warm-up activities at the start of lessons were purposeful and enjoyable, and succeeded in preparing students for more vigorous physical activity. Stretching exercises were correctly performed, aided by thorough explanation and demonstration from teachers. Where appropriate, students were allowed lead some of the warm-up and cool-down activities and this worked particularly well with a TY group where students demonstrated the ability to perform stretching activities aimed at warming up specific muscle groups in response to teacher questioning. This is considered very good practice as it helps students to take more responsibility for their learning and thus can increase their sense of ownership of the learning process. Teacher questioning as to the purpose of doing a warm-up and the nature of activities appropriate to warm-up also assisted students’ understanding.

Some students involved in a badminton lesson experienced difficulty in acquiring the correct technique for the service and, as this is a skill which often poses difficulties for beginners, the teacher was quick to offer individual help to students who needed it. The teacher provided individual and group instruction to these students as required and students responded very well to this additional help. Although a careful balance has to be struck between providing too little information to students to allow them to perform the skill adequately, and providing too much technical information which might confuse students, it is suggested that in addition to giving students valuable information about the aim and trajectory of the serve, some of the more essential technical points might be also be given. Thus some basic information regarding body alignment and the rules governing the service could also be given to students to assist them in acquiring the skill.

Activities in which students were engaged during the development phase of lessons were purposeful and showed a clear progression in difficulty. Later opportunities to apply the skills learned during this phase of the lesson in modified and conditioned games were very useful in consolidating learning. This good practice took place in all lessons and was particularly noteworthy during a lesson on rugby which involved both the teacher and the local IRFU development officer. Students were firstly involved in some basic passing and running drills with the key concepts of passing and support play being stressed. This was followed by a conditioned game which required students to apply these skills in a more competitive situation. Excellent materials had been downloaded by the teacher and given to students in advance of the lesson and this proved very beneficial when the game phase of the lesson took place as students required very little information regarding the rules of the modified games. This is considered very good practice. A feature of the games was that students officiated and coached the two teams involved and alternated these roles regularly. Both teacher and coach intervened occasionally to demonstrate aspects of the game that needed improvement or, more often, to ask students focussed, well-considered questions aimed at eliciting knowledge and understanding. The quality of responses by students to these questions and the subsequent improvement in performance which followed any such intervention indicated that significant learning had taken place. In a basketball lesson, students were questioned as to the names of particular types of passes that had been covered in previous lessons and demonstrated an ability to recall these and to list some of the key points for each.

It is important that learning is emphasised to students as the key outcome of all physical education lessons. Where purposeful, focussed recapping took place at the end of lessons, this was of considerable benefit as it helped to reinforce the learning that had taken place, as well as bringing lessons to a natural conclusion and creating a link between the current lesson and future lessons. This is regarded as very good practice and it is suggested that it should be a feature of all lessons so that learning, as well as activity, is highlighted for students. In all lessons, students’ questions were very well handled and indicated a very good level of student engagement with the subject matter. This contributed to the positive, friendly atmosphere which was evident throughout.

ASSESSMENT

The physical education department carries out fitness tests during physical education lessons for some year groups approximately twice per annum. The philosophy underpinning the use of these in the school is commended, whereby they are used to give students a greater understanding of their physical capacities in relation to their growth and development. The physical education department is aware of the desirability of avoiding the use of fitness tests as a competitive measure of student performance or achievement and, with this in mind, is also aware that caution needs to be exercised in the use of maximal tests, such as the bleep test, which require students to work close to their physiological limits. It is suggested that sub-maximal tests, such as the step test, be used in place of the bleep test to support learning in the area of cardio-respiratory fitness.

Physical Education is included in school reports which are sent home twice per year for each year group. In these reports, the physical education teachers make a comment, based on their observation during physical education lessons and records maintained, on students’ participation and effort. This is regarded as appropriate to the subject and it is recommended that, in order to further inform reporting in Physical Education, teachers seek to identify strategies to assess learning in Physical Education and maintain records of students’ achievement. It is considered good practice that the physical education teachers attend all parent-teacher meetings and, in addition to these, are available to meet parents on request.

SUMMARY OF MAIN FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:

• Physical Education is being delivered in the school by two experienced, qualified physical education teachers.
• The facilities available for the teaching of Physical Education are good and the school is commended for its plans to upgrade its hardcourt and grass playing facilities.
• Planning at whole-school level and with regard to individual lessons in Physical Education is good.
• The range of activities planned for TY is varied and interesting and provides students with opportunities for learning that are not possible in other years.
• A good range of extracurricular and co-curricular activities, catering for a significant number of students, is provided.
• The quality of teaching and learning in Physical Education in the school is good.
• Teacher questioning and the range of interesting activities provided in physical education lessons are contributing to a high level of student engagement with the learning process.
• A good system of assessment and reporting is in place.

As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:

• The school should work towards allocating a minimum of two hours per week to Physical Education for all students as recommended in the Department of Education and Science Rules and Programmes for Secondary Schools, 2004-05.
• The optional nature of Physical Education in sixth year should be reviewed.
• The school should become involved in the implementation of the JCPE syllabus with the aim of increasing the breadth of activities available at junior cycle.
• Learning should be emphasised to students as the key outcome of all physical education lessons.
• In order to further develop the system of assessment in the school, the physical education department should identify strategies to assess learning in Physical Education and subsequently maintain records of students’ achievement.

Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Physical Education and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.