Using physical education and sports to raise school standards

Budgets and academic targets can cause policy makers and schools to cut back on physical education and sports, but evidence suggests that this may be counterproductive. Annette Montague explains

EVERYONE WHO IS INTERESTED IN SPORTS is convinced of its power to improve lives. Sports have an ability to motivate, to focus, and to bring out the best in some people. Many individuals are also able to take the wider “life lessons” they learn through sports into other areas of life. The autobiographies of sports stars are littered with such examples. Indeed, it would be rare to find an athlete who was unable to describe how different aspects of their sport have had an impact on their knowledge, behavior, attitude, or skills in other areas of their personal or professional lives. This is also true for young people, and physical education (PE) and sports can be used to improve both physical and cognitive development in youth.

What we know
● Well-controlled longitudinal studies suggest that academic achievement is maintained or enhanced by increased PE, physical activity, or sports participation.
● Similar to other whole-school improvement strategies, using PE and sports to improve whole-school standards works best when:
● Senior leadership, particularly the principal, plays a role in the planning and implementation of the work;
● Students and staff involved are carefully identified;
● PE and other subject departments work collaboratively to develop strategies and high-quality resources; and
● The method of evaluation is considered in the planning stage rather than the implementation stage.

Getting the most from school sports

Schools are full of students whose self-esteem and confidence have benefited from succeeding in sports, and who have built on this to improve behaviors, attitudes, and performance across different areas of their lives. The key issue for schools, teachers, coaches, and others working in school environments is understanding how to harness what sports can do for individuals and turn this into a successful strategy that works for many young people, rather than for the few that can translate the learning into other benefits without additional help. We know that some adults (usually those who had a positive experience with sports as a child) do this instinctively, but we also need to describe it in a way that any school can implement. Then we have a strategy for improving school standards. The evidence of impact is interesting. Every international research project that seeks to link physical activity, PE, or sports to an improvement in behavior or achievement finds a positive correlation, although some have stronger correlations than others. So this tells us that it is possible. However, studies purely measuring the amount of physical activity, PE, or sports participation undertaken by students and their academic performance, however measured, do not show a clear and positive correlation. This tells us that just doing more physical activity isn’t enough for most young people to bring about changes in behavior or achievement by itself. Sports strategies need to be appropriately linked into an educational strategy in order for them to be fully realized.

Youth Sport Trust school improvement strategies

The Youth Sport Trust (YST) has been working with schools in the UK to understand the ways in which PE and sports can be used to improve whole-school standards in a replicable and sustainable way. Through doing this we have developed a framework that schools can use to determine which types of strategies might be most suitable for use in different school contexts and for different groups of students. The initial work was mostly focused in 500+ “sports colleges” (UK schools that specialize in PE) between 2005 and 2010. The YST recommends four key whole-school improvement strategies:

1. Relevant contexts

It is generally accepted that teaching topics in real-life contexts can improve student engagement and learning. Sporting contexts are familiar and interesting to many young people, and can easily be brought into the teaching of concepts in many subjects. For example, using real-life data from sporting events to illustrate mathematical concepts, or producing written reports on the events to develop literacy. The use of sporting contexts is a straightforward way to use sports across the curriculum. It requires little effort by the school to incorporate the ideas into standard teaching schemes, but is highly successful in improving engagement of students in lessons, which is a key factor in supporting achievement.

2. Using the positive values of sports

Sports and PE can build personal attributes that are important for the holistic development of students. These include confidence, ambition, self-esteem, aspiration, having respect for rules, being able to cope with winning and losing, forming positive relationships, determination, courage, etc. If these qualities are present, young people are more likely to feel secure in taking risks in their learning, attempting more challenging work, and therefore improving their ability. Schools have found many innovative ways to ensure that these personal values developed through PE and sports are recognized, nurtured, and celebrated throughout the life of the school (for example, through whole-school reward systems) rather than having the values be lost after the young person comes off the field of play. This strategy is most effective when it is also used to build a positive ethos and culture across the school.

3. Building on and benefiting from the generic skills developed through PE and sports

Sports and PE also develop skills that are relevant in other areas of the curriculum. These include observational skills, analytical skills, leadership, teamwork, communication, and motor skills. It is not unusual for students to regularly demonstrate these skills in a sports context, but not in other curriculum areas, which could be seen as a waste of talent and certainly does not support raised achievement. Explicitly developing and building on skills developed in PE in a wider range of circumstances is more complex than the other strategies because it requires schools to develop skills in a coordinated way, rather than each subject determining its curriculum in isolation. However, schools that have done this have reaped the rewards in terms of increased skill and confidence levels in students, as well as reducing the amount of teaching time for duplicate ideas between subjects.

4. Building on successful teaching approaches used in PE

Good-quality PE instruction is often characterized by approaches (pedagogies) such as:

  • Good use of mentoring and coaching techniques;
  • Substantial group and team work opportunities;
  • High-quality demonstrations;
  • High amount of practical learning opportunities;
  • High use of competitive situations;
  • High use of games-based activities for developing skills; and
  • Non-threatening use of target setting and monitoring progress.

All of these strategies are appropriate in the classrooms of other subjects, but can be missing from more “traditional” styles of instruction often seen in weaker subject teaching. Therefore, the fourth whole-school strategy is supporting the sharing of practice between PE teachers and other subject teachers. This strategy brings about long-term, sustainable change in teaching practice that leads to empowerment of teachers to try new ideas confidently and students becoming more involved in contributing fully to their learning.


Using PE and sports as a whole-school improvement strategy is likely to be seen as “radical” by some, but the schools that have been engaged with YST have seen significant gains in exam results, behavior, teaching practice, well-being, and ethos. Those that have done this say they would never go back. Maybe it is about time all schools tried it!

About the author

Annette Montague is the education director at the Youth Sport Trust. She leads their work with schools to support the development of PE and the use of PE and sports in raising achievement, attainment, and school standards. Prior to this, she worked as a teacher and with The Schools Network, a UK non-profit organization.

The Youth Sport Trust: Sport changes lives

Our charity is passionate about helping all young people achieve their full potential in life and in sport by supporting the development of high-quality physical education and school sport. Find out more at

Further reading

Stead R, and Neville M (2010), The Impact of Physical Education and Sport on Education Outcomes: A Review of Literature. Institute of Youth Sport, Loughborough University.

Chaddock L et al (2012), Childhood Aerobic Fitness Predicts Cognitive Performance One Year Later. Journal of Sports Sciences, 30, 421–430. Raising your Game – Using Sport to Raise Achievement in English, Mathematics and Science. Available from


This article is available to subscribers only. If you are an existing subscriber, please login. New subscribers may register below.

Existing Users Log In


June 2012