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EACEA National Policies Platform


7. Health and Well-Being

7.3 Sport, youth fitness and physical activity

Last update: 22 January 2021

LAST MODIFIED ON: 11/09/2020 - 13:18

On this page
  1. National strategy(ies)
  2. Promoting and supporting sport and physical activity among young people
  3. Physical education in schools
  4. Collaboration and partnerships

National strategy(ies)

The all-age Northern Ireland strategy for sport and physical recreation, Sport Matters, was published in 2009, with a ten-year implementation period. The strategy is set out around three main themes:

  1. improving participation: improving levels and frequency of participation in sport and physical recreation across the Northern Ireland population
  2. performance: encouraging the development of more successful sports organisations, systems and athletes
  3. places: supporting and encouraging the development of modern, more widely accessible and fit for purpose places that can be used for sporting and physical recreation purposes.

The strategy aims to promote increased participation in sport and physical recreation among under-represented groups and specifically women/girls and people with a disability.

The objectives of the strategy as regards children and young people include providing:

the opportunity for every child to access two hours extra-curricular sport and physical recreation per week through initiatives such as Extended Schools (see ‘Physical education in schools’), Active Schools and community sport programmes (p. 20).

mid-term review in 2014 expanded a target from the strategy of increasing the number of people in Northern Ireland in membership of at least one sports club to include a separate one of increasing the number of young people in membership of at least one sports club.

The then Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure, whose responsibilities for sport transferred in May 2016 to the Department for Communities, was primarily responsible for implementation. The Sport Matters Monitoring Group (SMMG) was set up to bring together senior representatives of the departments, agencies and organisations responsible for recreation, health, education, employment, the natural and built environments, and social development. In addition, strategy implementation groups were established for each theme. 

The Department for Communities is developing a new 10 year Strategy for Sport and Physical Activity that will seek to promote and sustain further growth in the culture of lifelong participation, enjoyment and success in sport and physical activity. A key element in the development of the strategy is co-design. There is a focus to ensure input from young people who will benefit from this 10-year sport and physical activity strategy. In the pre-consultation phase this has included youth groups, children and young people and through the Department for Education, reached out to schoolchildren. 


Promoting and supporting sport and physical activity among young people

In 2011, the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland issued guidelines for recommended levels of physical activity for different age groups. These guidelines were last updated in January 2020 to better reflect the increased compelling evidence base for the positive correlations between regular physical activity and young people.  For children and young people aged 5 to 18 years these are as follows:

  1. Vigorous intensity activities, including those that strengthen muscle and bones should be incorporated at least three days a week.
  2. All children and young people should minimise the amount of time spent being sedentary (sitting) for extended periods.
  3. These new guidelines allow greater flexibility for how and when children and young people can achieve the recommended levels of physical activity across the week. Contrary to 2011, the current evidence does not support a specific minimum daily threshold of 60 minutes of MVPA for health benefits, and instead recommends an average number of 60 daily minutes to be achieved across the week.

Every Body Active 2020. In 2015, the Board of Sport Northern Ireland approved a policy “to increase and sustain participation in sport and physical activity, especially among traditionally underrepresented groups”. The policy was premised on a holistic and integrated approach to increased and more equitable participation in sport and physical recreation, build on Sport NI’s previous ‘Active Communities’ Programme (2009-16). This new policy, Every Body Active 2020 – was designed to ensure that resources were deployed to maximum impact and tackle persistent cultural challenges in respect of low participation in, and the uptake of, sport among priority (under-represented) groups such as women/girls, people with a disability and those living in areas of greatest social need. In 2019, the SNI Board approved a 12 month extension to the Every Body Active 2020 programme to 31 March 2021.

A key objective in future years will be to ensure that more children and young people (4-17 years old) successfully transition into lifelong sustained – membership of a sports club/team outside of the school environment is regarded as a proxy indicator in this regard.

The Active School Travel Programme is mainly aimed at primary schools, but post-primary schools may also apply. Sustrans, a sustainable transport charity, is delivering the programme, which is being funded by the Department for Infrastructure and the Public Health Agency until 2021. 

This initiative provides schools with a planned programme of activities throughout the year, both in- and outside of the classroom, as well as support from a dedicated Sustrans Active Travel Officer. The fundamental aim of the initiative is to provide schools with the skills and knowledge to get more children walking, cycling and scooting as their main mode of transport to school.

According to Sustrans, at the end of the 2018-19 school year, the number of children walking, cycling and scooting to school at participating schools increased from 35% to 53%. At the same time, the number of pupils being driven to school fell from 58% to 41%.

Physical education in schools

Physical education (PE) is a compulsory part of the curriculum for all pupils at every key stage, from age four to 16. It is up to schools to determine how much time is devoted to PE in the curriculum but departmental guidance recommends that they should provide pupils with a minimum of two hours curricular PE per week.

The minimum requirements for Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) are set out in The Statutory Curriculum at Key Stage 3: Rationale and Detail (p. 48).  For Key Stage 4 (ages 14-16), the requirements are that pupils should be enabled to:

  • plan and participate in a regular, frequent and balanced programme of physical activity that:
    • develops their interests and talents
    • extends their knowledge, understanding and skills
    • contributes to, and helps sustain, a healthy and active lifestyle.
  • evaluate their own performances and that of others
  • recognise and manage risk and apply safe principles and procedures before, during and after physical activity
  • experience and understand different roles within a range of physical activities
  • know how to access sporting and recreational opportunities in the local and wider community.

The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) (an arms length public body) provides the Aspire, Aim and Achieve microsite, which has classroom and PE activities, along with ideas for running school sporting events. The ‘Concussion – Recognise and Remove’ website provides key information and multimedia teaching aids on concussion.

CCEA has recently launched a new web resource targeting disability and sport called Every Sport for Everyone. It means that every sport can be adapted in some way to include all players, with and without a disability. A disability can refer to an intellectual disability or a physical disability. It is important that every individual is included in sport and this can be achieved across all sports.

CCEA offers a GCSE in Physical Education and an A Level in Sport Science and the Leisure Industry.

Active Places NI is a comprehensive database of sports facilities throughout Northern Ireland which is maintained and managed by Sport NI.

Extended Schools

Through the Extended Schools programme, funding is made available to schools with significant numbers of pupils drawn from the most deprived areas or who have a Free School Meal Entitlement (FSME), enabling the provision of a wide range of additional services and activities before, during and beyond the normal school day (including after-school, evenings, weekends and holiday periods) which seek to meet the identified needs not only of pupils, but their parents, families, and others in the local community.

Where assessed as required by schools, this may include opportunities to participate in a variety of activities related to play, leisure, sport and recreation, as well as the promotion of healthy lifestyles.

Such activities may be organised by schools themselves or involve delivery by external organisations or groups. Schools may also choose to make their facilities, including sports, available for use by the wider community (see Community Use of School Premises section below).

Further details on the Extended Schools programme are also available on the Northern Ireland Extended Schools Information System (NIESIS).

Community Use of School Premises

The school’s estate offers a range of facilities which can be of benefit to local communities if used more widely, including for sporting, leisure and recreational purposes. Schools are enabled and encouraged via existing legislation and a number of policies and programmes (including Extended Schools), to make their facilities available for community use when not otherwise required for education purposes.

Issued in 2014, the document entitled Community Use of School Premises: a Guidance Toolkit for Schools is designed to enhance levels of community provision, offering advice and support to schools on the practical aspects associated with facilitating wider access to school premises.


Collaboration and partnerships

The Department for Communities chairs the Joint Working Group (JWG) on Your School Your Club which has delivered a range of schemes to upgrade existing school sports facilities to enable community usage outside of school hours.

The Group is made up of representatives from the Department for Agriculture, Environment & Rural Affairs (DAERA), the Department for Education (DE), the Education Authority (EA), Sport Northern Ireland and the 11 District Councils. In 2019/20, the JWG developed an Outcome Based Accountability (OBA) report card evidencing the impact of this collaborative approach on children and young people, schools and communities.