Physical activity and regular exercise invariably, if not incontrovertibly, form part of a healthy lifestyle; and not only physical wellness but also mental and emotional wellbeing. Research also suggests that – in post-primary education – continuing engagement in physical activity and sport during the pressurised exam years can enhance pupils’ performance in high-stakes examinations.
With the expansion in lifestyle design, with physical fitness at its centre, Ireland is experiencing unprecedented levels of engagement in sport and physical activity, evidenced by the burgeoning growth in bespoke fitness classes and programmes; diet planning and healthy eating; and large-scale sports activities and events. Perhaps now more than ever, the adage applies: ‘mens sana in corpore sano’.
Furthermore, sport represents a crucial part of Irish cultural and historical identity, and for a country of its relative size and population, the Irish economy and GDP. However, while sport and physical activity occupy a highly significant place in Irish society, physical education in Irish schools has lagged behind - marginalised on timetables in favour of more important exam subjects, or underserved by inadequate equipment. In 2013, Ireland was ranked by the EU in the bottom 3 of 36 European countries for physical education provision in schools.
It might be argued that since the mid-1960s, when a different image of Ireland prevailed upon the bicentenary commemorations for The Rising in 1966, (than did in 2016), a predominantly intellectualist frame has strongly influenced education in Ireland, emerging from the seminal educational-philosophical work of R.S. Peters.
With recent changes in the Junior Cycle curriculum, and an emphasis on young people’s wellbeing in the new Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement (JCPA), which includes PE as a core area, and the design of the Senior Cycle PE Framework (2016), the time seems ripe to transform PE in Irish schools. Consistent with similar developments taking place for computer science at Senior Cycle, physical education might finally be able to move beyond the problematic status of ‘subject without a syllabus’.
This talk explores the new curriculum designs for physical education, traced through the history of physical education in Irish schools since the mid-1960s, when R.S. Peters’ salient work first emerged; and in an analysis informed by contemporary debates and themes in education – both in Ireland and internationally - highlights constraints and possibilities of the new PE design for Irish education.