Re-engaging disengaged pupils in physical education: success stories from the field by Shirley Gray

In a recent post about primary PE, Dr. Mike Jess made a plea for PE practitioners to share more of their success stories. While this blog is not specifically about primary PE, it is my attempt to ‘Accentuate the Positive’.

Over the years, I have been lucky enough to spend much of my career working with PE teachers and PE students in schools in Scotland. Part of my role is to understand what it is that they do, why they do it, and how their practice impacts on the experiences of their pupils. Through my research, and the research of my colleagues (see PERF), I have learned that many teachers have positive stories to tell, inspired by their endeavors to ensure that all of their pupils have successful and meaningful learning experiences in PE. To give an example of this from my own research, along with my colleague Dr. Jenn Treacy, we recently worked with PE teachers from three local secondary schools to understand the ways in which they attempted to motivate and re-engage those pupils who had become disengaged from PE. We also aimed to explore the impact that their engagement in the project had on their professional learning.

What did we do?

Over a period of around 6 months, we invited PE teachers from 3 secondary schools to explore and share their ideas about how they had successfully re-engaged pupils who had been previously disengaged from PE. We also asked their ‘previously disengaged’ pupils to share their positive experiences in a series of focus group interviews. The teachers from all three schools were then invited to work together to share their findings, discuss the pupils’ perspectives and to create new ideas that would build on their success stories.

What did we find?

We found that the teachers were already engaging in pedagogies that focused on the needs of their learners. They were adopting learner-centered and problem-solving pedagogies, facilitating learner-designed programmes and offering contemporary activities such as ‘capture the flag’ and trampolining. There was also a distinct emphasis on differentiated learning to ensure the successful learning for all of their pupils. However, what was really interesting, were the reasons why the teachers applied these strategies. For example, the teachers explained that they planned pupil-centred teaching approaches, or pupil-designed programmes, to encourage the pupils to take responsibility for both what they learned and how they learned. They emphasized the importance of ensuring that all pupils had opportunities to be successful – a socially relevant form of success that mattered to them. Key to this was that the teachers listened to their pupils and involved them in the decision-making processes. In fact, time and space for discussions with pupils were embedded into many of the programmes in each school. In order for this to work, both the teachers and the pupils emphasized and recognized the efforts that were made to develop positive relationships. Trust was an extremely important factor, and the teachers frequently discussed how they attempted to build trust by, for example, talking to, listening to and responding to their pupils’ views, feelings and ideas. Importantly, this was also evidenced by the pupil discussions about their positive experiences in PE, where they clearly recognised their teachers attempts to engage with, listen to and respond to them.




Learning from the research process

The teachers involved in this study were already making attempts to understand, evaluate and change their practice in order to re-engage their disengaged pupils in PE. Therefore, it came as no surprise that they might invest effort to create time and space to talk to the researchers, talk to each other and engage in personal reflection. Importantly, this investment appears to have encouraged them to engage in a level of reflection that has led a greater understanding of their own practice and pupil experience. This was evidenced in their personal reflections and in the group discussions, where the teachers reported how much they valued the opportunity to investigate and reflect on their practice. Additionally, all of the teachers said that they would create more time in the future for personal and collaborative reflections. Their involvement in the research process also encouraged them to be involved in a follow-up study to examine their pedagogy in line with the development of pupils’ social and emotional learning (see Paul Wright).


This study was not an ‘intervention’ to test the effectiveness of a particular method or model. Nor was this study an attempt to expose current teaching practice as something to be ‘fixed’. On the contrary, we understood the teachers to be engaging in practices that had the capacity to re-engage disengaged pupils. In doing so, we were introduced to teachers who were highly motivated and committed to all of their pupils. The teachers had already completed a ‘first-draft’ of their success stories, but now they have enhanced their stories, and importantly, share their stories with others. This may encourage other teachers to make efforts to develop or change their practice, but I am sure that for many teachers, this will simply reinforce the fact that they are already engaging in innovative, meaningful and learner-centered practices. There are many more success stories out there (for more see the SATPE website) and while, like Dr. Jess, I agree that PE teachers have many challenges to face – I also believe that “not all is broken”. On the whole, PE in both secondary and primary schools in Scotland is in good hands.

For more information about this project and others, contact:

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