Think before you cut… Are physical education and the arts the glue that holds the school together?

Enrique García Bengoechea is a Dean’s Research Fellow in Physical Activity and Health in the Faculty of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Limerick in Ireland. In this blog, he discusses the results of his research that investigated the relationship between different curricular activities and school engagement.

Think before you cut… Are physical education and the arts the glue that holds the school together?

School physical education is often placed outside of the subject areas considered as ‘core academic subjects’. This has prompted leading experts and professional associations in Europe, Canada, the United States and Australia to release position papers and documents that advocate for physical education as a unique and essential learning area focused on educational purposes and assert that all young people in schools are entitled to quality experiences in this area (Crum, 2017; Physical and Health Education Canada, 2017; SHAPE America, 2015; The Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation, 2014). Similar to physical education, curricular arts programs are often perceived as marginal and therefore susceptible to cuts during periods of economic restraint.

With a few exceptions, studies that include curricular factors when investigating influences on students’ engagement with the school are surprisingly absent from the literature. In light of this, we recently conducted a study to assess pupils’ experience in a range of subjects by asking them to rate how much they enjoyed the subjects. We also analysed data to determine how parents, teachers and peers influenced the pupils’ engagement with school. We used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth – a long-term study of Canadian children that follows development and wellbeing from birth.  Those taking part (aged 12-15 years) were asked to rate their enjoyment of arts education, language arts, mathematics, physical education and science. We used logistic regression procedures to examine the link between enjoyment of subjects and school engagement. We accounted for factors such as gender, parental encouragement, peer relations, perceptions of teachers, and academic performance. We also assessed participation in a variety of extracurricular activities both in and outside of school (Bengoechea, Lorenzino & Gray, 2019).

Overall, the findings suggest that pupils who enjoy physical education and the arts take part in school life more fully than those who do not. All factors considered, for 12 and 13 year olds, enjoyment of physical education was the greatest contributor to feeling connected to school. Taking part in school-based extracurricular art, drama or music activities was, along with feelings of connection to peers, the most important contributor to school engagement for 14 and 15 year olds. As expected, enjoyment of the different academic subjects was generally associated with greater feelings of connection to school. However, of all curricular factors considered in our study, enjoyment of physical education and arts education were the strongest contributors to pupil engagement in both age groups.

Curricular factors, and in particular the quality of pupils’ experience in physical education and arts education, may be more important than previously recognized in terms of understanding and promoting their engagement with school during adolescence. The findings of our study emphasize the importance of physical education and the arts— subjects typically considered less essential academically—in the school curriculum, particularly in the key transition from primary to secondary school. Findings provide also support for the role of participation in extracurricular activities and after school programmes in fostering school engagement in adolescence.

How can we interpret these findings? For the time being, I think that the more holistic nature of physical education and arts education, compared to other academic subjects, may explain some of the observed associations between curricular factors and pupils’ engagement with school. However, no matter how encouraging these initial findings are, we need more research, particularly using longitudinal and mixed methods designs, to further tease out the relationships of curricular and extracurricular factors with pupils’ engagement and inform the design of school-based interventions and programmes to promote this developmental asset among young people.


Bengoechea, E.G., Lorenzino, L., & Gray, S. (2019). Not academic enough? Enjoyment of physical education and arts education and school engagement in early and middle adolescence. Retos, 35, 301-309.

Crum, B. (2017). How to win the battle for survival as a school subject? Reflections on justification, objectives, methods and organization of PE in schools of the 21st century. Retos, 31, 238 -244.

Physical and Health Education Canada (2017). Time to move! Retrieved from

SHAPE America-Society of Health and Physical Educators. (2015). Physical education is an academic subject [position statement]. Reston, VA: Author.

The Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation (2014). The importance of the Health and Physical Education learning area in schools [position statement]. Retrieved from




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