A national study on the state and status of physical education in South African public schools

Cora Burnett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Background: In 2016, the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) selected South Africa as a pilot country for policy reforms in Quality Physical Education (QPE). Purpose: This initiative required a national research project on the ‘state and status of physical education in South African public schools’. The South African Physical Education Association was formed and 27 researchers from nine public universities undertook a two-year national study. Method: The strategic and evaluative approach utilised mixed methods for data collection in 61, purposefully selected, schools in all nine provinces, and across all school types (e.g. rural/urban, socio-economic status (SES), primary and secondary schools, and schools for learners with special educational needs) (LSEN). Semi-structured interviews were conducted from 66 school leadership representatives, 112 Heads of Departments (HODs) and 38 Governing Body members. Focus group discussions were held with 232 physical education (PE) teachers (including HODs) and 601 students, whilst researchers observed PE lessons and photographed facilities and equipment to capture the type and quality thereof. Questionnaires were completed by 56 HODs, 175 PE teachers, 1333 primary and 1348 secondary school students. Findings: The results show a preference for a sport-focused pedagogical approach, followed by a health-focused and life skill/value-based approach, whilst self-learning (non-teaching) happens in many poorly resourced (low quintile) schools. The ‘state’ of PE was firstly reflected in the quality of teaching associated with teachers’ qualifications. PE was taught by 25.1% specialist physical educators, 62.3% (non-specialist) classroom teachers and 14.9% of classes were outsourced to external service providers (NGOs and community volunteers for low quintile schools and expert coaches contracted by higher quintile schools). Teachers reported curricular constraints, the lack of content knowledge and poor didactical competencies as major challenges. Budget constraints and the lack of access to physical resources including the location of some facilities. The latter was exacerbated by the focus on academic performances and poor parental support. Main recommendations for the Department of Basic Education (DBE) included requests for curriculum reform and awarding PE as subject stand-alone-status, equitable resource provision among different school types and (in-service) professional development of teachers. Conclusion: It was evident that the implementation of QPE was compromised by multiple constraints and would require more than mere policy reform. Meaningful change requires strategic interventions by all stakeholders and at all levels of engagement. There are many learnings related to a large-scale study in which many researchers participated.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-18
Number of pages18
JournalPhysical Education and Sport Pedagogy
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • physical education
  • schools
  • South Africa
  • students
  • teachers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation


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