PE, School Sport and Care Experienced Children and Young People

November 15, 2018

Children and young people in care often face challenges; particularly in relation to their education, health and wellbeing. In recent years, there has been an increasing awareness within policy and research of these challenges. Given the claimed benefits that sport and physical activity can be a provider of certain protective factors, it is argued that Physical Education (PE) and school sport may have an important role to play in care experienced children’s educational experiences (Armour et al., 2011). For young people in particular, an international body of research has focused on the benefits of experiencing positive sport and physical activity to help with reducing youth crime and substance abuse, reengaging disadvantaged youth and promoting resilience. There is also support for its ability to contribute to young people’s health, wellbeing and positive development, such as contributing to bone strength, enhancing self-confidence and fostering life skills (see Bailey et al., 2009). However, few studies have considered the role of sport and physical activity in the lives of children in care. There remains a shortage of research on their experiences of sport and physical activity in the school context, which is arguably easier for children in care to access. In light of this, my study (Woodhouse, 2018) explored the PE and School Sport (PESS) experiences of young people who are, or who have been, ‘looked-after’ under the care of their local authority at some point.


My study consisted of surveys and interviews with care experienced children and young people, PE teachers and local authority professionals in England to generate a mixture of adult and youth perspectives. The data and discussion presented in my study offered a new insight into their lives and considered how PESS experiences are shaped by a variety of influences in relation to personal and physical environment, pre-care experience, health and wellbeing, and educational engagement. The findings suggest that care experienced children’s and young people’s lives are complex and cannot be viewed in isolation from wider life circumstance. However, the research not only discovered individual differences with regards to their experiences but also that the same issue can be represented differently by adults and youth. Such differences highlight the importance of speaking with the multiple people who play a role in shaping the experiences of children and young people in care – including young people themselves. However, difficulties in gaining access to speak with care experienced children and young people can mean that hearing their voice is difficult and my study was no exception with multiple challenges throughout.


The adult participants in my study believed that there were social, emotional and wellbeing benefits for children in care participating in PESS, yet given their often chaotic and disrupted lives, many of the young participants were not interested in PESS and did not speak about the associated benefits. However, the role of the PE teacher in positively contributing to their educational experiences could prove a favourable resource to draw upon, particularly if training in this area were to be implemented on a statutory basis. In this respect, one of the key values of my study is that it highlighted, and reinforced, the fact that there are policy implications with regards to supporting care experienced children and young people, not only in PESS, but in relation to their wider wellbeing and education. For instance, an interesting concept that this study raised, is that schools are not included as part of the English Government’s statutory guidance in promoting care experienced children’s and young people’s health and wellbeing. There is also no mention of PE or physical activity as a means of promoting wellbeing and physical health, other than a fleeting reference to sport whereby social workers are to ensure “that the children their authority looks after, including teenage parents, have access to available positive activities such as arts, sport and culture, in order to promote their sense of wellbeing” (Department for Education and Department of Health, 2015, p.20).


This raises important questions about local authorities, and indeed schools, needing to push the health and wellbeing agenda but battling against a lack of guidance and the disengagement of some children and young people in care. My study also highlighted possible inconsistences in PESS provision for care experienced children and young people as a result of government structural constraints, such as performance driven targets. Each year the Government publishes statistics (gathered from local authorities) on the academic attainment of children and young people in care which is inherently focused on Maths and English, potentially affecting the time provided to other parts of the curriculum such as PE.  In light of these findings, the study represents a step into further valuable work in this area. It goes some way to challenging the way in which PESS is currently offered to children and young people in care and has implications for research, policy and practice.


Dr Chloé O’Donnell (Née Woodhouse)

If you are interested in my work, please do not hesitate to get in touch at, it would be great to hear from you.





Armour, K., Sandford, R. and Duncombe, R. (2011). Right to be active: looked-after children in physical education and sport, in K. Armour (Ed.) Sport Pedagogy: An Introduction for Teaching and Coaching. London: Pearson Education Limited.


Bailey, R., Armour, K., Kirk, D., Jess, M., Pickup, I. and Sandford, R. (2009). The educational benefits claimed for physical education and school sport: an academic review, Research Papers in Education, 24(1): 1-27.


Department for Education and Department of Health. (2015). Statutory guidance: Promoting the health and wellbeing of looked-after children. Retrieved June 2014 from   


Woodhouse, C. (2018). Exploring the Physical Education and School Sport Experiences of Looked-After Children and Young People. PhD thesis, Loughborough University, Loughborough.