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Levels on the playing field: the social construction of physical 'ability' in the physical education curriculum


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Evans, J and Penney, D 2008 , 'Levels on the playing field: the social construction of physical 'ability' in the physical education curriculum' , Physical Education & Sport Pedagogy, vol. 13, no. 1 , pp. 31-47 , doi: 10.1080/17408980701345576.

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Background: This paper develops an analysis of how ‘educability’ and ‘physical ability’ are socially
configured through the practices of physical education (PE) in schools. We pursue this interest as
part of a broader project, shared by many in the wider community of social science researchers in
PE, to better understand how ‘knowledge of the body’ is produced, transmitted and ‘received’ in
and through the educational practices of schools, and how these processes relate to social justice,
inequality, cultural reproduction and change.
Purpose: Our specific interest here is in how the physical education curriculum is ‘encoded’ with
particular conceptions of education, childhood, development and ‘educability’ and how these,
when expressed through various pedagogical modes, may impact a child’s opportunity to display
or perform ‘ability’ in PE classrooms and, ultimately, their ‘desire’ to learn.
Research design: Drawing on sociological concepts from Bernstein, the paper undertakes a
comparative, narrative analysis of two curriculum texts, Movement and Growing (HMSO) and the
National Curriculum PE (DFEE), both of which have sought to define thinking and practice in
PE in the UK over the last 50 years. The former, influential in the 1950s and 1960s, is now a
‘redundant pedagogy’; the latter has defined PE in England and Wales since the 1990s.
Findings: The analysis suggests that in the contrast between these texts we can identify two forms of
pedagogy, each representing and reflecting distinctive political ideologies, versions of education and
social control. The former (Movement and Growing) predicates ‘horizontal relationships’, the
recognition and acceptance of diverse ‘abilities’, shared needs and interests, and the achievement
of personal value and status. The latter (National Curriculum PE), ‘vertical relationships’,
differentiation and the creation of ‘ability’ hierarchies, and the ascription of positional status and
Conclusion: The analysis invites teachers to consider whether modern variants of PE have liberalised
or limited teachers’ understandings of ‘ability’, ‘educability’ and how children learn to succeed and
fail in PE.

Item Type: Article
Authors/Creators:Evans, J and Penney, D
Keywords: Physical Education; Curriculum; Codes; Ability; Hierarchies; Levels
Journal or Publication Title: Physical Education & Sport Pedagogy
Publisher: Routledge
ISSN: 1740-8989
DOI / ID Number: 10.1080/17408980701345576
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