18 SES 05 A, Ability, Behaviour and Assessment in Physical Education
Mixed-ability grouping is commonly adopted in physical education [PE] in many secondary schools in the United Kingdom [UK] and internationally. Despite this, little research has been undertaken that has critically examined mixed-ability grouping, particularly in relation to the pedagogical strategies employed by teachers to facilitate quality learning opportunities for all students. The concept of ability has also received limited empirical research attention internationally, despite being acknowledged as highly influential in shaping students’ experiences and opportunities in PE (see, e.g., Evans, 2004; Penney & lisahunter, 2006; Hay & lisahunter, 2006; Croston, 2014, Wilkinson & Penney, in press). The research reported in this paper sought to advance theoretical and empirical understanding of pedagogic practices within a mixed-ability PE setting in a secondary school in England, specifically in relation to issues of ability and inclusion. In directing attention to ability, the research also acknowledged the sustained influence that gender discourses have been shown to have on PE curriculum and pedagogy, and on young people’s experiences of PE and sport in schools (see, e.g., Penney, 2002; Flintoff, 2008; Dowling, Fitzgerald & Flintoff, 2012).
This paper thus adds to a relatively small but growing body of literature critically examining the role of normalised ability discourses in shaping how inclusivity is understood, enacted and experienced in PE. The research specifically explored:
- The notions of ability and inclusivity inherent in the pedagogic practices used by teachers within a mixed-ability PE setting;
- Consequently, how learning opportunities are differentiated with reference to particular skills, knowledge and/or understandings; and
- The ways in which gender discourses intersect with ability discourses in a mixed-ability PE setting.
The paper draws on data collected from a qualitative case study of one mixed-gender secondary school (ages 11–18) in the north-east of England. The case study school is a large, state funded school with just over 1600 students on roll and has a policy of using mixed-ability grouping in all PE lessons. Semi-structured individual interviews were conducted with seven PE teachers (four male and three female) in the school. The semi-structured interviews covered three main topics: perceptions and justifications of mixed-ability grouping in PE, the teaching of mixed-ability groups in PE; and grouping within mixed-ability PE. The interview guide was informed by relevant literature, piloted with two PE teachers from schools not involved in the study, and refined during the research process to reflect a commitment to data collection being “guided by the simultaneous analysis of the data” (Robertson, 2005, p. 31). Interviews were audio-recorded and as soon as possible after each interview had taken place, were transcribed verbatim and iteratively analysed for major themes. Data were subjected to a systematic process of inductive and deductive thematic coding (Boyatzis, 1998; Braun & Clarke, 2006). Transcripts were initially grouped by gender of students for analysis. This reflected that girls and boys were taught in single-sex groups in PE, a common arrangement in secondary schools in England (Green, 2008; Wilkinson et al., 2015). The interview data were then read multiple times to detect initial patterns, relationships and inconsistencies. Text segments that appeared to carry similar meaning were grouped together and assigned a provisional category label (Braun & Clarke, 2006) and data further interrogated to critically assess their accuracy and comprehensiveness (Boyatzis, 1998; Braun & Clarke, 2006). Further analysis subsequently explored the relationship of category labels and data extracts to DeLuca’s (2013) conceptualisation of inclusion as applied by Penney et al. (2018). This step in analysis sought to particularly extend insights into the relationship between grouping practices, pedagogy and the understandings of inclusion being expressed and legitimated in mixed-ability PE lessons. For each stage in analysis, the process continued until the data were saturated.
The findings from this case study demonstrate the complex and nuanced nature of mixed-ability grouping practices in PE, with setting in another subject being the basis of mixed ability grouping in PE in Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) and a system of pathways that differentiated the PE curriculum experienced by different students in Key Stage 4 (ages 14-16). In both instances, practices expressed narrow and limited conceptualisations of ability and inclusivity and served to legitimate and reproduce the status of skills, knowledge and understandings that aligned with a traditional team sport and performance orientation. Findings also highlight subtle and less formalised grouping practices being applied within mixed ability PE lessons and illustrate a gendered dimension to the pedagogic practices employed. While PE teachers were not formally grouping students by ability, they were clearly drawing on and applying particular conceptions of ability to group students within mixed-ability PE lessons in Key Stage 3 and to then frame pathway opportunities for different students in Key Stage 4. Students in the performance/team pathway were privileged in terms of access to high status resources and learning opportunities, including opportunities to study examination PE and represent the school in inter-school competitions. PE teachers also drew on discourses of gender and ability to argue for greater use of grouping based on ability within boys’ PE lessons and grouping based on friendship within girls’ PE lessons. Practices associated with curriculum design, pedagogy and assessment indicated that inclusivity within mixed-ability teaching in PE was being framed in normative and integrative terms (DeLuca, 2013; Penney et al., 2018) and simultaneously, signalled continued legitimation and institutionalisation of established gender-differentiated practices, experiences and opportunities in PE (see, e.g., Fletcher 1984; Flintoff & Scraton 2006; Kirk 2002; Penney 2002; Wilkinson & Penney, 2015).
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