Physical education and educational values: at what price? Blog written by Dr. Malcolm Thorburn

Dr. Malcolm Thorburn is a Lecturer in Physical Education at the University of Edinburgh. In this short blog, he offers this thoughts on privatisation reforms in the context of physical education.

Physical education and educational values: at what price?

One day many years ago as a young Principal Teacher of Physical Education I was watching one of the school football teams with some colleagues when I mentioned in the passing that our schools football kit was a bit tatty compared with the visiting team. The Principal Teacher of Modern Studies gestured across to the local small town garage and said ‘Why don’t you go across there and ask them to sponsor the school team and buy you a new set of football strips.’ I had trouble even countenancing such an idea. If the school was keen to have sports teams then they needed to fund them out of the school budget. I could not see that it was part of my job to go round local businesses asking for sponsorship and funding.

I was reminded of this moment recently when I was asked to review a series of Australian-based papers on privatisation reforms and health work (including physical education) in schools. What became apparent quite immediately was the advanced state of reforms and of how health work in schools seems particularly ripe for privatisation initiatives. This had many ramifications including implications for curriculum support, professional development, ownership and control over curriculum content and the extent to which teachers’ expertise was valued.

I was particularly engrossed with one large secondary school in an area of high social deprivation where McDonald’s corporate link with the school has progressed from sponsoring sports teams to sponsoring school-based apprenticeships, then positive behaviour programmes, and eventually to creating and sharing common values. This situation seems to reflect Windle’s (2017) concerns that disadvantaged schools in Australia have often needed to embrace privatisation albeit reluctantly such is the need to keep trying to boost the profile of schools whenever possible. Still, at least the ongoing commitment to comprehensive provision in Scotland, being as it is ‘a reflection of democracy and communal solidarity and demonstration that opportunities to succeed should be available to all learners’ (Bryce & Humes, 2013, p. 51) should mean that the visible culture of schools are unlikely to be dominated by two big yellow arches for some time yet.

However, is it possible in tight economic times that teachers may well need to work out where their own lines of professional acceptability and unacceptability are drawn? Certainly, the main point I’ve reflected on recently is that while my own educational values have remained quite similar over the decades (slightly left leaning and troubled by issues over advantage and disadvantage in education), my decision making about what to do in certain situations has probably changed. Faced now with the professional dilemma over tired sports kit and what to do about it, I think I would be more inclined to ask the local garage owner for sponsorship support than previously. All up a case of similar values but different decision-making. Time changes things – sometimes.


Bryce, T.G.K. and Humes, W.H. (2013) The Distinctiveness of Scottish Education. In: T.G.K. Bryce, W.H. Humes, D. Gillies & A. Kennedy (Eds.), Scottish Education. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

Windle, J. A. (2017) The Burdens of Marketized Schooling in Australia: Cherry Picking, Poaching, and Gaming the Curriculum. In: S.N. Bekisizwe & C. Lubienski (Eds) Privatisation and the education of marginalised children: policies, impacts and global lessons. New York: Routledge.