Mislead-In-15: From Body Coach to ‘PE Teacher’

Dear Headteacher,

I enclose my application for the position of the Nation’s PE Teacher. Whilst I do not possess any formal teaching qualifications, let alone in PE, I do have a whole host of other qualifications including a degree in Sports Science and 5 years’ experience as a Personal Trainer, which I’m sure you’ll agree makes me well qualified for the post.

Turn back the clock 5 years and my kitchen is a hotbed of Joe Wicks cookbooks. I make his chicken and new potato hash, and even get down for a quick set of press-ups whilst I wait for the ‘spuds to ping’. 

He changed my attitude to food, and as a keen runner and amateur nutritionist, he planted the first seeds in my understanding of fuelling for different types of life and exercise. I can proudly say that I converted at least 3 of my friends to his ways too, and we even hosted a Joe Wicks dinner evening most weeks post run.

Just as he is now, and always has been, Joe was engaging, talked sense and kept it simple. He changed people’s lives with his ‘Lean-In-15’ programme and gave people a genuinely sustainable plan to stick to - who doesn’t like calling broccoli ‘midget trees’. A full 5 years later, the book made it into my Chinese apartment, despite my limited shipping allowance.

As a fitness instructor and The Body Coach, you simply cannot knock the guy: good intentions, simple plans and a healthy lifestyle - all good things.

These good intentions were also evident at the start of the first UK lockdown. With parents struggling to cope with the demands of online learning, and children being stuck inside with very few physical outlets or options, Joe saw the need to make sure that these children (and parents) kept moving, simply for the good of their health; and as Schools scrambled to put provision in place, whilst tackling the deficit in access to internet and resources their students had, I am sure he was a godsend to some families. Credit where credit is due, Joe did a fantastic job at getting the nation moving. As a PE professional, it would be, quite frankly, odd if I opposed something which made kids move. As momentum grew, Joe saw an opportunity to launch another strand to his empire: ‘PE with Joe’.

This is where my objection and criticism begins.

It is the notion of Joe being referred to as ‘The Nation’s PE Teacher’ that I challenge: in qualification, he isn’t a Teacher and, in practical terms, his ‘lessons’ are missing a key element: education.

Joe isn’t the only one who is engaging in supporting education in the current climate. There are a whole host of celebrities supporting the UK’s teachers: students can watch History with Dan Snow, Cook with Jamie, or perhaps participate in my favourite: take a Music class with Mylene Klass. Why am I not complaining about these opportunities? Because, fundamentally, Jamie Oliver isn’t walking around calling himself the ‘Nation’s Food Tech Teacher’ – probably a good thing, given his eternal unpopularity with the majority of 20-30-year olds in the UK after he banished Turkey Twizzlers.

Perhaps all of this is unfair on Joe. I don’t imagine he initially referred to himself as ‘the Nation’s PE Teac… oh wait: he actually did. In fact, he announced it on Twitter:

“I’m going to be the Nation’s PE Teacher”.

Frustratingly, Joe failed to recognise the difference between a coach and a teacher, further showing his seeming lack of any formal qualification or understanding of the role of modern day PE. Indeed, in an interview with the Telegraph, he suggested that his ‘lessons’ were ideal for getting students to concentrate in their actual lessons, when they sit down for their school day.

'Don't worry, I've got you. I'm going to take this over. I'm going to get your kids moving, getting energised, positive, optimistic.

....All good things that a lesson should have...

Whilst Joe’s intentions may be harmless and come from a good place, as a PE professional, I have to argue that my subject does not exist merely as a tool to help students learn in actual subjects. PE is a subject in its own right, contains just as much learning content as any other lesson and the same emphasis on key skills. Despite my limited experience of OFSTED, I’m confident that ‘being active’ and tiring kids out so they can concentrate in their real lessons doesn’t really wash with the DfE.

I could labour my point further, perhaps by completing a lesson observation to check for the inclusion of an objective, that the learning is situated, and that the students understand what each exercise is developing and why this is important within its context. However, I won’t do that, nor will I quote the programme of study within the National Curriculum and its pre-requisites for PE in schools.

PE is unique in its standing within the school context, as it can’t operate with PE teaching staff alone. Visit any School worth its salt on a Saturday morning and you will see Maths, Science and History teachers taking Football, Rugby and Netball teams, coaching students to become better in an area of genuine passion. Do these teachers believe that they are doing a PE teacher’s job? I believe not, because they understand that PE is more than just kicking a ball around or jumping. It’s more than physical activity or staying busy.

They understand this because they are qualified education professionals who know that there is more to every subject than meets the eye. In schools, we recognise the difference between physical activity and Physical Education.

Joe Wicks being referred to as ‘The Nation’s PE Teacher’ is not just misleading, it is also frustrating and potentially more damaging than yet realised. His outreach grants access to millions of parents, many of whom probably endured the PE of the 1970s which often emphasised physical activity above education. PE with Joe reinforces the notion that the subject is no more than being physical, a notion which has held it back for many years, whilst it battled the images and memories of ‘Kes’ style lessons.

 PE and its teachers continue to try to prove the subject is as valuable as its academic counterparts. As it stands now, it is a subject on a knife edge with subject professionals striving to strike the balance between the Physical nature expected by government statistics, governing bodies and school leadership, and the conscience of the PE teachers who want to ensure that students understand why they do what they do and how to live healthy and active lifestyles without direct instruction.

At Dulwich College Suzhou, our vision for PE has changed. COVID demanded that it did. During the past 10 months, the DCSZ PE philosophy has crystallised: education comes before the physical. No student can succeed in PE if we do not teach them how and why they do the activities they do. As teachers continue to struggle through online learning around the world, an educational pivot has taken place within PE. Now more than ever, for the student to come first, education must also come first, whichever sport is coming up on the curriculum plan.

I guess the real test in what Joe is delivering will be post lockdown. Perhaps I will be wrong and we will have a generation of students building their own fitness sessions, and explaining exactly how that helps them to stay fit and healthy, in a broad and balanced way. I shall wait with bated breath.

I sign this off in the only way appropriate for this article, in the same way The Nation’s PE Teacher signs his usual communications to students.

Lots of Love, Jess