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Levels on the playing field: the social construction of physical 'ability' in the physical education curriculum

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-16, 21:09 authored by Evans, J, Penney, D

Background: This paper develops an analysis of how ‘educability’ and ‘physical ability’ are socially configured through the practices of physical education (PE) in schools. We pursue this interest as part of a broader project, shared by many in the wider community of social science researchers in PE, to better understand how ‘knowledge of the body’ is produced, transmitted and ‘received’ in and through the educational practices of schools, and how these processes relate to social justice, inequality, cultural reproduction and change.

Purpose: Our specific interest here is in how the physical education curriculum is ‘encoded’ with particular conceptions of education, childhood, development and ‘educability’ and how these, when expressed through various pedagogical modes, may impact a child’s opportunity to display or perform ‘ability’ in PE classrooms and, ultimately, their ‘desire’ to learn.

Research design: Drawing on sociological concepts from Bernstein, the paper undertakes a comparative, narrative analysis of two curriculum texts, Movement and Growing (HMSO) and the National Curriculum PE (DFEE), both of which have sought to define thinking and practice in PE in the UK over the last 50 years. The former, influential in the 1950s and 1960s, is now a ‘redundant pedagogy’; the latter has defined PE in England and Wales since the 1990s.

Findings: The analysis suggests that in the contrast between these texts we can identify two forms of pedagogy, each representing and reflecting distinctive political ideologies, versions of education and social control. The former (Movement and Growing) predicates ‘horizontal relationships’, the recognition and acceptance of diverse ‘abilities’, shared needs and interests, and the achievement of personal value and status. The latter (National Curriculum PE), ‘vertical relationships’, differentiation and the creation of ‘ability’ hierarchies, and the ascription of positional status and value.

Conclusion: The analysis invites teachers to consider whether modern variants of PE have liberalised or limited teachers’ understandings of ‘ability’, ‘educability’ and how children learn to succeed and fail in PE.


Publication title

Physical Education & Sport Pedagogy








Faculty of Education



Place of publication

United Kingdom

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