Are teachers spending 60 per cent less time on sport?

1 August 2012

"Teachers spending 60% less time on sport despite pledge to use the Olympics to encourage more children to take part"

Daily Mail, 19 July 2012

"Our freedom of information requests to local councils show that the amount of PE teacher time spent organising school sport has fallen by 60%."

Harriet Harman MP, House of Commons, 10 July 2012

With Olympic fever spreading across London, the UK and the rest of the world, participation in school sport has once again come into the media spotlight.

Earlier this month, Shadow Minister for Culture Media and Sport, Harriet Harman, claimed that Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to local councils revealed that the time spent by PE teachers on organising school sport had fallen by 60 per cent. This was later picked up by the Daily Mail whose headline reported that "Teachers [are] spending 60% less time on sport despite pledge to use the Olympics to encourage more children to take part".  

Full Fact decided to do a bit of digging to see if we could find the origin of this figure. 


According to Ms Harman and the Mail, the 60 per cent reduction was derived from FOI requests conducted by the Labour Party to local councils.

This does not, however, tell us a great deal about what the figure itself is based on so we contacted the Labour Party to see if they could offer any further details. These were kindly provided to us by the office of Shadow Minister for Sport, Clive Efford.  

The relevant questions asked to local councils were:

  • How many school sport coordinators were there in your local authority in the school year 2009/10 and how many were full-time or part-time in each of these years?
  • How many PE teachers are there currently on teacher release funded by the Department for Education for the purpose of organising competitive sport?

Mr Efford's office also told us that, of the 150 top-tier local authorities, 77 (51 per cent) provided comparable data in response to these questions.

So where is the 60 per cent figure coming from?

According to Labour, the figure of 60 per cent is calculated by comparing the total number of days per week worked by 'school sports coordinators' in the school year 2009/10 with the total number of days on release (funded by the DfE) currently taken by PE teachers for the purposes of organising competitive sport per week.

Labour's findings are presented below:

Total number of days per week worked by school sports coordinators in the school year 2009/10


Total number of days on release currently taken by PE teachers for the purposes of organising competitive sport per week  


We can clearly see a 60.4 per cent reduction from the 2009/10 figure to the current figure (3007.5 — 1190.5 = 1817; 1817 is 60.4 per cent of 3007.5).

So is this reasonable?

The first point to make is that this statistic is not the same as the amount of time that teachers are spending on sport as the Mail's headline would suggest.

Labour's figures reflect a particular subset of time dedicated to sport within schools and do not, for example, include the weekly hours of PE taught as part of a school's curriculum; neither do they include after-school hours dedicated to extra-curricular sport.  

In fairness to the Mail, subsequent paragraphs offer a little more information on the specifics of Labour's research. However the headline remains unclear with respect to this.

Moreover, the data doesn't necessarily show "that the amount of PE teacher time spent organising school sport has fallen by 60%" as claimed by Ms Harman unless we adopt a very narrow definition of what constitutes 'organising school sport'. If we are to be satisfied by Ms Harman's statement, we must conclude that, for example, lesson preparation for a time-tabled PE lesson is not included in the definition.

Not all of this is easily measurable though, so we will take Labour's definition on board and analyse this specifically.

Are the two statistics comparable?

One thing immediately obvious from Labour's research is that the two questions used to get the headline statistic don't seem to ask about the same thing. The first asks for the number of 'school sports coordinators' in 2009/10 while the second probes for PE teachers released to organise competetive sport. Yet the two were used for the comparison.

We asked Mr Efford's office why they had chosen to juxtapose these particular statistics.

We were informed that, from the 2011/12 school year onwards, school sports coordinators (SSCs) were replaced by PE teachers on release as part of the Government's policy review and thus comparing the hours worked by SSCs in the 2009/10 school year to the hours worked currently by PE teachers on release was the fairest way of assessing the impact of the Coalition's policy.     

Mr Efford's office also told us that Labour had requested data anyway on the number of SSCs operating in local authorities for the school years 2007/08; 2008/09; 2009/10; 2010/11 and 2011/12.

Despite no SSCs existing from 2011/12, some of the local authorities provided the figures for released PE teachers in their place. Of the first 69 respondents, 308.5 SSCs were recorded (not taking in account part time and full time) as opposed to the expected figure of 0. However other authorities did state this as 0. For this reason, Labour decided not to use this calculation method as the data was insufficiently comparable.

This would suggest that some LAs continue to refer to teachers on release as SSCs giving us cause to question whether the 2011/12 figure for the number of teachers on release might be a bit of an underestimate. We cannot, however, confirm this.          

Another potential problem is that the extent to which the statistics on SSCs and teachers on release are comparable is surely determined by the role of SSCs in 2009/10 compared to the current activities of PE teachers whilst on leave for the purposes of organising competitive sport.

Unfortunately we do not have any comprehensive information on this and believe that we would need to conduct a qualitative assessment of the operations of SSCs and PE teachers in each local authority to determine their comparability more definitively.

Nevertheless, the fact that a number of LAs still referred to teachers on release as SSCs would suggest that the roles are reasonably similar, and do represent 'time spent on sport'.

What else do we know about school sports participation?

It is worth noting that Ms Harman's claim followed a question on children's participation in school sport since the Government discontinued the school sports partnership. At the time the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, was unable to put a figure on such participation, provoking accusations that the Government had "made it their business not to know" by abolishing the School Sports Survey.

Full Fact got in touch with Sport England to see if they had any recent figures, who pointed us to the Department for Culture Media and Sport's 'Taking Part Survey'.

Looking at the 2010 and 2011 reports for this survey, we can present time-series data on the proportion of children who had participated in sport in the past four weeks (from completion of the survey) - although it isn't clear how much of this was in school.  

The 2011 report does, however, give figures on participation in competitive sport in schools, collected between January and March 2011. Figures for 11-15 year olds are presented in the graph below. Further details are provided in the report itself.

We would, however, caution against making direct comparisons between these figures and those of previous school sports surveys considering the methodological differences of the two - something we've highlighted before.


Thanks to Labour sharing their findings with us we can see where the 60 per cent figure comes from. The internal calculations appear to be sound and care has clearly been taken not to provide uncomparable data. For this we are grateful to Clive Efford's office for their help in understanding the information.

Questions remain, however, over whether this represents a fair reflection of the amount of time actually spent by teachers on sport. The measure used was quite specific and is not necessarily reflective of the work of all PE teachers and, while Mr Efford's office took care to avoid problems of comparability, it's still worth bearing in mind that not all the local authorities appear to adopt the same definitions of SSCs after 2011.

So we can certainly draw some useful conclusions from the data, but care needs to be taken not to overstate what the data actually shows.

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