Physical education gives children higher self esteem

Children at specialist sports colleges may develop significantly higher physical self-esteem compared to those at traditional state schools, according to a new report.

The Northumbria University study has revealed that after just one academic year, sports college pupils’ confidence had grown about their sporting ability, their physical strength and condition and their physique compared to those at a regular comprehensive school.

The findings are especially relevant at a time when the Government is urging schools to set higher targets for physical activity to help fight against obesity.

The research also revealed that the effect was considerably more noticeable in males than females, with male pupils reporting much greater changes in physical self-worth compared to female pupils.

Sports colleges are part of the DfES specialist schools system and are intended to raise standards of achievement in Physical Education and sport for students with a range of abilities, leading to an improvement in GCSE grades across the whole school.

The study, carried out at Ashington Community High School Sports College and a non-specialist comprehensive school, both in Northumberland, examined almost 300 Year-9 pupils (first year equivalent) on entry into the schools and again at the end of their first academic year.

Year-9 pupils undertake approximately three hours of high-quality physical education per week at Ashington Community High compared to two hours in non-specialist schools. The school also runs a wide programme of sporting activities for its pupils during break times and lunchtime and after school, with pupils participating in recreational sport, internal leagues and school-representative levels.

Researchers used questionnaires to examine the pupils’ physical self-perception profiles, which include four basic components of physical self-esteem:

  • Sports competence – their perceptions of their sport and athletic ability, ability to learn sports and confidence in the sports environment.
  • Attractiveness of body – their perceptions of attractiveness of their figure or physique, ability to maintain an attractive body and confidence in appearance.
  • Strength – their perceptions of their strength, muscle development and confidence in situations requiring strength.
  • Physical condition – their perceptions of their level of physical condition, stamina and fitness, ability to maintain exercise and confidence in the exercise and fitness setting.                        

In addition to these factors, a further set of questions were designed to provide a general measure of their physical self-worth – their general feelings of happiness, pride, respect, satisfaction and confidence in the physical self.

Low self-esteem is a perceived problem within Ashington Community High Schools’ catchment area which is characterised by high levels of unemployment, socio-economic deprivation and low levels of participation in higher education.

Male pupils consistently rated higher scores compared to females, with the biggest gains found for male pupils’ perceptions of their sports competence. After one year at the college they have rated themselves as more competent at sport, and have attributed more importance to being competent at sport, which, according to the researchers, will have a positive impact on their physical self-worth and self-esteem.

The research was carried out by Gordon Macfadyen, Dr Sarah Partington, Dr Liz Partington and Dr Kevin Robertson from Northumbria University’s Division of Sport Sciences. Gordon said: “The findings reinforce the notion that the sports college curriculum is more successful in enhancing aspects of physical self-worth than that in traditional state schools, particularly for male pupils.

“Attendance at the sports college had a beneficial effect on all components of physical self-worth for the male pupils. In particular, their perceptions of sports competence and the importance they attributed to sports competence increased substantially after attending the sports college for only one year, a finding that was not replicated at the control school. This indicates that the current curriculum, which has a particular emphasis on sports competence, is successfully achieving its aim.”

Kieran McGrane, Director of PE & Sport at Ashington Community High School Sports College, agreed: “The boys’ results have reinforced the staff perceptions. They seem to be more engaged and happier at school.

“We have also seen a marked improvement in the number of pupils studying PE at GCSE level. Prior to becoming a sports college in 2001, approximately 60-70 pupils per year would study it, now we have 135 GCSE PE pupils so it’s a good indicator that something positive is happening.”

The research team now hope to examine why the female pupils’ results were not as positive as the male results, and establish a way to redress the balance.

Northumbria University is also engaged in research with another of the region’s sports colleges, examining the effect of various PE programmes on body composition, physical fitness, and attitudes towards exercise.

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