A national survey of gendered grouping practices in secondary school physical education in England

Shaun D. Wilkinson*, Dawn Penney

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
98 Downloads (Pure)


Background: Gendered grouping practices and curriculum provision are matters of long-standing contention and debate in physical education (PE) policy, research, and practice internationally. In England, there is a long tradition of single-sex grouping in PE in secondary schools, with accompanying gendered patterns of staffing and many boys and girls taught different activities in the curriculum. Research on the incidence of single- and mixed-sex grouping in PE is however scarce, dated, and limited in scale. At a time when education, sport, and society are challenged to move beyond binary discourses and critically review structures and practices that uphold stereotypical and established gendered power relations, this study sought to provide an evidence base and stimulus for researchers, policy-makers, and PE professionals to (re-) engage with grouping practices in PE. Specifically, the study was designed to provide a national picture of current single- and mixed-sex grouping arrangements in PE in secondary schools in England.

Method: Data were collected by a web-based survey of all 2873 mainstream state-funded co-educational secondary schools in England. The survey was addressed to Subject Leaders of PE and was open between September and October 2021. A total of 818 surveys were completed giving an overall response rate of 28.5%.

Results: The responses indicated that single-sex grouping is the most common arrangement in core (compulsory, non-examination) PE in Key Stage 3 (Years 7-9) and Key Stage 4 (Years 10-11), whilst mixed-sex grouping is dominant in General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and/or Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) PE in Key Stage 4. It was noticeable, however, that very few schools were using the same arrangement for all PE lessons in Key Stages 3 and 4, and some were using single-sex grouping within mixed-sex PE lessons, particularly in physical contact activities such as rugby and football. The responses highlighted that single- and mixed-sex grouping decisions in PE are complex and contingent on several interrelated factors, including curriculum content and structures, school timetabling, staffing arrangements and preferences, the nature of the student cohort, and specific considerations relating to safety in some sport contexts. Data indicated that in many instances grouping arrangements in secondary school PE in England serve to reproduce and legitimate restrictive binary gender discourses. There was some but limited evidence of grouping approaches positively supporting gender diversity within PE, with a small number of schools organising PE in mixed-sex classes to be more inclusive of transgender and non-binary students.

Discussion and conclusion: This study highlights the role that grouping approaches play in either impeding or advancing work to strengthen gender equity and inclusion in PE and identifies teachers’ knowledge, skills, and understandings relating to grouping approaches and gender diversity as an important focus for initial teacher education and professional learning. The paper also calls for engagement from research and professional communities internationally to inform future policies and practices regarding the use of grouping approaches in PE.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalPhysical Education and Sport Pedagogy
Early online date20 Jul 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 20 Jul 2023

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