Poor professional development may be hampering a £320 million drive to boost children’s physical health through primary schools, a study suggests.
The government commits funding – the PE and sport premium for primary schools – for schools in England to help their pupils to be physically active.
Schools choose how to spend their allocation of funding and some is expected to be spent on training teachers.
A Cambridge University study said that many school-based interventions to promote physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour have been delivered worldwide.
These have “largely failed to change students’… behaviour”, according to research, and the team looked to staff training for possible answers.
They found that key ingredients were often missing from the training teachers received.
In a review of trials that covered data from hundreds of schools internationally – many of them in the UK – researchers found little evidence, for example, that teachers had clear goals to work towards.
They also found little evidence that teachers received regular feedback on their practice, or were provided with resources that prompted the programme’s integration into the school day.
The study suggests that these shortcomings make it significantly less likely that the health-promoting activities in which they are being trained would be sustained, or have a positive impact on pupils.
Mairead Ryan, a doctoral researcher at Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education and Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit, said schools needed clearer guidance on how to invest in appropriate training.
“This funding can have a tremendous impact on children’s health and education, but schools could be better supported in identifying and delivering effective professional development for their staff,” she said.
“Our findings highlight features in professional development programmes that school staff can look for and that providers should include.”
Ms Ryan and her team reviewed the staff training documented in reports from 51 randomised control trials of new school-based physical activity programmes.
Eight of these trials were in Britain, eight in the United States, 10 in Australia, and the remainder in 16 other countries.
Collectively, they covered tens of thousands of pupils in hundreds of schools: on average, each trial gathered evidence from 14 schools and 800 pupils.
“Professional development activities that have a lasting impact look like ongoing conversations between providers and teachers,” Ms Ryan said.
“Instead, what we generally saw in these programmes were isolated instructional events.”
Effective training tended to involve a clear demonstration of the activity teachers were meant to be implementing, opportunities to practise it, clear goals, allocated planning time, and routine feedback, according to the research.
It also typically ensured there were resources – such as sports equipment – within sight to prompt the programme’s integration into the school day.
However, these characteristics were absent from most of the training programmes that the researchers reviewed.
Professor Riikka Hofmann, of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, said: “Quality professional development is often overlooked in the context of primary PE and schools should be supported to use this funding to invest in reliable professional development with tried and tested features.
“Pupils bear the costs of this, particularly those with limited opportunities to be active outside school.”
Dr Esther van Sluijs, programme leader at the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit, said: “Regular physical activity is important for children’s physical health as well as their wellbeing and academic performance.
“Our findings are especially timely given that this additional funding is not guaranteed in future years.”
The research is published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity.