Bailey, R.  (2005) ‘Evaluating the relationship between physical education, sport and social inclusion’, Educational Review, 57 (1): 72—90.

[A good critical review of some recent evidence about the relationship, and some sensible policy recommendations, including that we look at the mediating processes involved].

Physical education is not exactly the same as sport.  PE, as it is defined in the UK national curriculum, is ‘fundamentally concerned with knowledge, skills and understanding’, and it is connected to other outcomes such as learning ‘social skills, aesthetic judgments, literacy and numeracy’.  Sport by contrast tends to refer to ‘activities, processes relationships and physical, psychological and sociological outcomes’.  The Council of Europe’s European Sports Charter defines it as ‘all forms of physical activity which, through casual or organised participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental wellbeing, forming relationships or obtaining results in competitions at all levels’ (72).

It is also claimed that sport can lead to wider benefits—indeed, this is the major emphasis in policy documents [well until recently, where preparation for elite sport dominates?] Health benefits in particular are often claimed, connected to anxiety about the health of children and young people related to sedentary lifestyles.  There are also claims about ‘pro social outcomes’, including neighbourhood renewal, crime reduction, reduced truancy, reduced youth crime, ‘and provision of opportunities for “active citizenship”’ (74).  Economic issues such as capital investment or regional planning have been relatively neglected.  The notion of ‘social capital’ has not been defined or measured accurately, however.  There is a general notion that it is ‘concerned with the role of social networks and civic norms, and is closely linked with concepts of trust, community and civic engagement’ (75).

Bourdieu refers to several capitals, and in his later work (1997: 51) defines it as ‘the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition…  which provides each of its members with the backing of collectively owned capital’.  Coleman refers to social capital as a resource which draws upon social structures and which facilitates certain actions within them.  There is a specifically educational context—resources which assist cognitive and social development, and which are found in families and communities.  These are largely unintended results of these activities.  Putnam says that social networks are the key, especially those developing through participation in shared activities, such as bowling.  The book identifies links between high levels of participation and desirable outcomes such as low crime rates, improved health and improved attainment.  All three authors refer to social cohesion [assuming Bourdieu is not a Marxist!].  Sports organisations seem on the face of it to be ideal ways to develop social capital, in  ‘theory at least’ (76).  Problems with the policy include treating symptoms and not causes, and consequences rather than processes [including the continuing development of social closure as an active process --try Bourdieu on that!].

Sport in particular seems to develop networks that are valuable, good at building relationships, and provide opportunities to develop transferable competencies.  Sporting teams can also increase ‘community cohesion and civic pride’ (77) [or reduce it!].  Of course it is necessary to widen opportunities for access.  Recent surveys suggest considerable levels of access, at least at the rate of one in the previous year.  However, a Sport England survey identified significant minorities who have limited participation, and a larger group who participate at any insufficient level to gain any health benefits.  There are fears of inadequate participation, including marginalisation of PE at school: ‘increasing “government initiative overload and National Curriculum pressures”…  [are cited as]…  direct causes of reduced time and status for physical education and sport…  especially…  in primary schools’ (78).  A lack of competent teaching staff and reduced support for staff are also cited.  Gender differences remained stubborn, with boys spending more time doing sport, doing more activities, and competing at a higher level.  Overall participation rates for adults in minority ethnic communities were 40%, compared to 46% of the population as a whole, and particular groups have especially low levels of participation (79).  Ethnic origin can combine with gender to increase differences in participation.  Disabled young people are far less likely to do extracurricular activity or sport, and their barriers to participation include ‘negative school experiences’ (79).  An obvious suggestion is to not only provide wider opportunities, but to involve ‘young people in decision-making’ (79).  Young people may need adequate levels of ‘self esteem and confidence and peer acceptance’ as a condition for participation in the first place (79).  Local leadership might be important too.

Physical education probably has a number of benefits, including ‘respect for the body…  Self confidence and self esteem…  Social and cognitive development and academic achievement’ (80), and there are claims for increased social skills including tolerance and respect, cooperation cohesion, and personality development, including ‘”positive effects of physical activities on self concept, self esteem, anxiety, depression, tension and stress, self confidence, energy, mood, efficiency and wellbeing”’ (80, citing a Council of Europe report).  Similar claims are found throughout the literature.  Regular participation is associated with a better quality of life, reduced risk of disease: ‘inactivity is one of the most significant causes of death, disability and reduced quality of life in the western world’, according to an American Dept of Health report (81).  Physical activity can improve children’s physical health in particular, including reducing their liability to diabetes.  Adult conditions such as brittle bones and CHD ‘can be aided, in parts, by regular physical activity in the early years’ (81).  The infant years seem to be critical in the development of obesity and its associated risks.  Some research shows the relationship between sporting activity and educational performance, although it is ‘somewhat inconclusive’, and other studies ‘have found either no more limited improvement in academic performance resulting from increased physical activity’ (81), although other studies suggest the contrary.

Regular activity has a positive effect on psychological well being, especially children’s self esteem, and especially those in disadvantaged groups.  Sports participation is thought to reduce crime either through rehabilitation of offenders or by preventing or diverting then in the first place.  Rehabilitation often also involves intensive counselling, sometimes via outdoor adventure for physical activity programmes.  However, information about impact is not based on reliable information.  Crime reduction is difficult to measure as a ‘sport effect’ alone, says Coalter (2001).  Diversion has lead to large scale sports programmes such as summer sports programmes.  Again information about outcomes is difficult to pin down, especially since so many schemes had ambitious objectives, vague classifications ‘and simplistic theorising about the causes of delinquency’ (83), referring to Coalter again.  However strong claims are still made for local initiatives, often relying on anecdotal evidence rather than systematic evaluation.  The same goes for studies of pupil attendance and success rates in pupil referral units.  Sport does seem to ‘make the school experience a more attractive option, and there are other positive findings.  ‘However, these studies involve small sample sizes and often reply [sic, presumably rely] upon the testimonies of those introducing the intervention’ (84).  It is also the case that not everyone enjoys these activities, including ‘many girls’, possibly due to factors such as ‘boys’ dominance of teacher attention…  The perception that the National Curriculum is biased towards traditionally “male” activities, and an incompatibility between the activities experienced at school and those of volunteering engaged in after leaving school' (84). 

It seems that the necessary conditions of provision are not always sufficient conditions—'It cannot be assumed that any or all of the benefits…  Will automatically be obtained in all circumstances by all participants...  Sporting activities are not a homogenous standardised product or experience' (85).  Important intervening variables include the nature of the teaching coaching or supervision, including ‘the personal qualities and teaching styles of physical education teachers' (85).  Some girls in particular seem to have found teaching approaches inappropriate, while some elite athletes have described them as inspirational.  The frequency and intensity of participation, and its duration are equally important.  Voluntary sport might only attract those who are already predisposed towards it, as opposed to those who are 'most in need of the experiences' (85). 

It is certainly not enough to focus on theoretical possibilities alone.  However, many practitioners do not monitor or evaluate—'for example, in an analysis of 180 items on sport and social exclusion, Collins and colleagues found only 11 studies 'had anything approaching rigorous evaluations and some of those did not give specific data for excluded groups or communities"'(86).

Selected references

Bourdieu, P. (1997) The forms of capital, in: A. H. Halsey, H. Lauder, P. Brown & A. Stuart Wells (Eds) Education: culture, economy, society (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Coalter, F. (2001) Realising the potential: the case for cultural services: sport (London, Local Government Association).

Coalter, F., Allison, M. & Taylor, J. (2000) The role of sport in regenerating deprived urban areas (Edinburgh, Scottish Office Central Research Unit)

Collins, M., Henry, L & Houlihan, B. (1999) Sport and social inclusion: a report to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (Loughborough, Institute of Sport and Leisure Policy, Loughborough


Long, L. & Sanderson, 1. (2001) The social benefits of sport: where's the proof? in: C. Gratton & 1. Henry (Eds) Sport in the city (London, Routledge