• Open Access

Pre-service primary school teachers' experiences of physical education


  • Nicole Nathan,

    1. Hunter New England Population Health, Hunter New England Area Health Service, New South Wales; Priority Research Centre for Health Behaviour, The University of Newcastle, New South Wales
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  • Luke Wolfenden,

    1. Hunter New England Population Health, Hunter New England Area Health Service, New South Wales; Priority Research Centre for Health Behaviour, The University of Newcastle, New South Wales
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  • Philip J. Morgan

    1. Priority Research Centre in Physical Activity & Nutrition, Faculty of Education & Arts, The University of Newcastle, New South Wales
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Correspondence to: Nicole Nathan, Program Manager, Hunter New England Population Health, Locked Bag No. 10, Wallsend, NSW 2287, e-mail: Nicole.Nathan@hnehealth.nsw.gov.au

In Australia, National Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that children participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) every day.1 Participation in physical activity provides numerous physical and psychological health benefits for school-aged children.2 However, data suggest that Australian children are not adequately active.3 In 2007, only 40% of Australian children aged 9–13 years met the recommended daily MVPA requirements.3 Schools play an important role in supporting children to develop the knowledge and skills to lead physically active lifestyles,4 and key to this is the delivery of high-quality physical education (PE).5 Despite this, school implementation of PE, and physical activity programs more generally, has been less than optimal.6

In 2012, the New South Wales (NSW) Auditor-General undertook a review into physical activity in NSW Government Primary Schools.7 The review found that about 30% of primary schools were not meeting the required two hours of planned physical activity each week. Among schools providing the required two hours per week, the report concluded that few were providing opportunities for MVPA. Furthermore, the quality of PE varied considerably. Many schools did not have a PE policy, plan or program and many had highly sedentary PE lessons that did not sufficiently focus on fundamental movement skill development.

Research suggests that schools often face a number of barriers in the provision of quality PE lessons. These include a lack of staff time due to a crowded curriculum, a lack of teacher expertise and confidence, and school prioritisation of other learning areas.8 As such, one of the reported recommendations of the Auditor-General's Report was to work with universities to enhance the PE skills of graduate primary school teachers. Critical to enhancing the skills of graduate primary teachers, however, are opportunities to observe, practice and receive feedback regarding the teaching of PE to children as part of their university in-school teaching practicum.6

Across Australia, as part of university teacher education, pre-service primary school teachers may be required to undertake a final year practicum teaching experience within schools of 20–50 days. In October 2010, we conducted a paper survey with pre-service primary school teachers from one university in NSW, who were in week nine of their final 10-week teaching practicum, to identify the nature of PE teaching experiences while on practicum. In total, 64 students (95% of eligible students) completed the survey. During placement, 76% of pre-service teachers had observed their colleague teacher teach a PE lesson, which ran for 35 minutes on average. Of these students, more than 35% reported that PE occurred only one day per week or less, despite recommendations that it should be taught more frequently.7 Only 8% reported that PE was taught every day. Further, while 77% had observed their colleague teacher teach a fundamental movement skills lesson, only 23% observed their colleague teacher deliver a structured lesson including all recommended components for the effective teaching of fundamental movement skills, such as a skill-specific warm-up, feedback, modelling and extension experiences.9 More than half (59%) of the pre-service teachers had been provided the opportunity to teach PE one day per week or less. Of these, 21% did not teach a PE lesson during their nine weeks in the school. A number of teachers' practices were also observed which impeded student physical activity. For example, many had observed their colleague teachers discipline students by excluding them from PE (48%), use PE as punishment (63%) or cancel a PE program because of other events in the school or because of poor weather (58%).

Opportunities to teach PE during practicum are critical to ensure the appropriate development of pre-service teacher skills. However, they may then be undermined once students are employed in schools which do not have a culture which values and practises quality teaching of PE. Our findings support the recommendations of the Auditor-General's Report that interventions addressing both the training of future teachers and existing staff are required, if Australia is to become a leader in PE to maximise health and educational outcomes for all children.


The project received infrastructure support from the Hunter Medical Research Institute and Hunter New England Population Health. The authors thank the pre-service teachers for participating in the survey.