OPINION | There’s still a need for physical education in our schools

2020-05-28 15:54

Central to the idea of alternative teacher training systems must be the foundational epistemology that the history of PE teacher training matters. If we forget our history, we will perpetuate past and present inequalities in our school sport and PE systems, writes Francois Cleophas.


As our schools are set to re-open on 1 June 2020, and student teachers might be expected to conduct their practicals there, I ask myself what teacher trainers are expected to do and how should they have been trained, in particular those training to become Physical Education (PE) teachers.

These prospective teachers find themselves in an educational landscape fraught with historical and political dilemmas that can be traced back to the 1990s.

It is a landscape that not only has past failings, but is littered with the evils of market capitalism.

A question that current academics entrusted with training future PE teachers should ask themselves is: given the historical contextual landscape of the subject, is there a need for the subject during and after this pandemic? 

One view is that the pandemic has highlighted the structural inequalities in our so-called civilized modern era where diabetes, cardio-vascular and many other preventable diseases make people more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Well-trained PE teachers can be a valuable human resource intervention at economically poor schools during the current crisis despite the fact that higher education institutions and the National Education Department contributed to the demise of the subject.

We are currently in a situation where we could have potentially benefited from the presence of well-equipped PE teachers in our schools where Covid-19 has revealed the poor  physical health of teachers, children and support staff.

Instead, we are sitting with a bad PE curriculum and poorly trained teachers to implement it. Most of our universities have ditched the training of specialised PE teachers in the wake of the failed Outcomes Based Education (OBE) project of the 1990’s as my colleague Jonathan Jansen called it.

New departmental officials keen on proving their worth to the new regime supported this project and often acted brutally harsh against any dissenting voice.

It was also a decade of large-scale rationalisation of teachers that affected mainly under-resourced schools. The reshaping of the old Apartheid curriculum into a pro-government of National Unity curriculum undoubtedly led to the demise of the subject.

The racist PE curriculum under the Apartheid regime, which prepared white boys for military service, was replaced by a watered down, un-pedagogical series of senseless exercises as part of Curriculum 2005.

By 2005, in any case, the subject was dead in most public schools and existed only in name or in the reports of subject advisors. 

The introduction of OBE made specialist trained PE teachers redundant at schools. Consequently, many took Voluntary Severance Packages. This left the subject in the hands of teachers with “free periods”.

With new funding models for universities, faculties became increasingly market driven or, as my radical-minded colleagues claim, were captured by the post-Apartheid neo-liberal market-driven education system.

At most universities, PE teacher training were located primarily in Sport Science or Human Movement Studies departments within faculties of education.

These departments were carried largely by students who were training to become PE teachers with state bursaries.  

In the wake of the collapse of PE into Life Orientation in 1996, these bursaries were discontinued and fewer students opted to study PE.

The neo-liberal and market-driven Sport Science departments opted to downscale their PE teacher training courses and eventually migrated to other faculties.

Today, most public and private schools have PE teachers with a sport science, biokinetics or kinder kinetika training.

Sadly, these well-trained graduates are employed in well-resourced private and public schools, while lower quintile schools are left with teachers who did crash courses.   

Prior to 1994, the bulk of PE teacher training took place at post-matric colleges. Graduates from these colleges formed the backbone of community and school sport structures.

However, black colleges were under repressive control (instrumentally and ideologically) of Apartheid education departments who were hell bent on shaping the bodies and minds of prospective teachers.

Students were not encouraged to have deep engagement with the subject’s content and relation to broader society.  

Rather than transforming these colleges into fully-fledged university campuses, the post-Apartheid regime opted to close them.

Physical Education teacher training for primary schools were then left in the hands of Sport Science departments who initially trained teachers as part of B.Ed programmes.

This training failed on two fronts.

First, very little researched-based work was being conducted in these programmes and secondly, no new critical knowledges emanated from these courses.

Instead, the post-Apartheid PE project at universities became a soundboard for the OBE system.

Later, Sport Science departments ditched this training and moved into the financially lucrative fields of project-funded high-performance sport ventures. Unsurprisingly, PE, as a teacher training specialist field, became moribund.    

The current demand (or lack thereof) for PE remains market driven.

We are led to believe by the drivers of economic market models for education that what is needed most are Science, Technology, Economics and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Their argument also centres on the supposed primary need for digital literacy. Others place primary emphasis on languages. So, when the economic market collapses during a crisis but the economic model of education remains intact, we have a problem. 

The problem we face in education now is that learners need to know about health and their bodies, and about how to protect themselves first. This is what PE teachers do, or ought to do.

They could have done this if they were trained (or should I rather say, prepared scientifically) to teach learners about good nutrition, healthy living and purposeful exercise.  

So, what possible solutions exist for PE teacher training?

There has to be an admission in the curriculum that something went wrong in the past. It is highly unlikely that the national education departments will admit this.

Perhaps students could start to agitate for PE to be implemented in schools. Much in the same as their predecessors did in 1976, 1980 and 1985.

However, we need an informed agitation and therefore those in the know should establish forums around a wide range of issues relating to public health, civic matters, democracy, etc.

There should be a re-imaging of a new world beyond consumerism of health.  

Progressive academics could do well to join community organisations in seeking alternatives to the current neo-liberal economic model of purchasing health at the expense of providing quality public health care.

Physical Education teachers, provided they are prepared through research-based training, can be a strategic partner in helping to resolve the current crisis.  

We need PE teacher training systems that provide alternatives to current curriculum practices and epistemologies (theories of knowledge).

Central to the idea of alternative teacher training systems must be the foundational epistemology that the history of PE teacher training matters. If we forget our history, we will perpetuate past and present inequalities in our school sport and PE systems.

In doing so, we might have to admit that there no longer is a need for PE in our schools.  Let us do otherwise and argue in favour of a need for PE in our schools. 

– Dr Francois Cleophas is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sport Science at Stellenbosch University. He focuses on Physical Education (PE) and Sport History research with a secondary interest in PE teaching and learning. 

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