Learnings from an established, whole-of-school physical activity initiative operating at scale in Ireland.
Whole-of-school physical activity initiatives have been identified by ISPAH as one of the #8Investments in physical activity. But research indicates that they can be challenging to design and to implement, particularly at scale.
Ireland’s Active School Flag (ASF) programme is a whole-of-school physical activity initiative which has been in existence since 2010. The aim of the initiative is to get more schools, more active, more often. Since inception, over 2,200 flags have been awarded to Irish primary schools, with ongoing high levels of growth and engagement. Once awarded, the flag remains valid for three years, after which time schools are invited to renew their ASF status. The evolution of the process is detailed in the research paper Ten Years Flying the Active School Flag
Consistent government support from the Department of Education and the Department of Health, and the inclusion of ASF as a key action within Ireland’s National Physical Activity Plan, highlights the value placed on the initiative at national level. A strong evidence base also supports the efficacy and acceptability of ASF as a sustainable programme for Irish schools.
About Active School Flag
ASF incentivises and supports schools to promote physical activity in a whole-of-school way. Implementing the process doesn’t require specialist knowledge, large scale investment or curricular time. It is designed to be child centred and teacher friendly. The goal is to help schools to:
- Strengthen physical education programmes;
- Energise the school day in a fun and inclusive way;
- Strengthen partnerships and provide tangible opportunities for pupil voice and leadership;
- Build an Active School Week in to the annual school calendar.
“The Active School Flag process really put the spotlight on physical activity for the whole school, for the whole year.” School Feedback (2022)
The process is anchored by success criteria which are differentiated by stage of engagement. Schools complete the process over the timeframe that best suits their needs and their context, normally 1-2 years. This video explains the ASF process in greater detail and the main activities are shown below.
Active School Flag main activities
Finding the Fit
Over the past 12 years we have learned a lot about how to make ASF work for schools and to fit within busy school days.
ASF is a Department of Education initiative. This is significant because it validates the process within the education sector. It also allows the ASF framework to include a curricular focus with specific criteria relating to physical education. Wellbeing is a priority area for all Irish schools at the moment, requiring them to self-evaluate their policies and practices and to make improvements in response to their identified needs. The ASF process can support schools with this work.
We have found that once school leaders and teachers experience the benefits that an energised school day brings, it is a lot easier to convince them to engage with ASF. Active School Week and the 4-week active breaks and running challenges are stand-alone initiatives, as well as forming a core part of the ASF process. They give schools the opportunity to ‘try out’ ASF and to assess their ‘readiness to engage’ as a school community, before committing to process.
“There are so many benefits. The most obvious is the huge emphasis on pupil wellbeing, health and exercise. We can see it in their level of fitness but also in their level of happiness in school. In terms of discipline, working off some energy at regular intervals really helps many pupils.” School Feedback (2022).
Listening and Learning from Teachers
The biggest challenge that we faced was HOW to generate whole-of-school commitment and whole-of-school engagement with ASF as a whole-of-school physical activity initiative. Increasing awareness about the benefits that physical activity brings to the teaching and learning processes and supporting schools, in practical ways, to integrate physical activity with learning helped enormously with ‘buy in’.
“We realised that activity can be incorporated in to any lesson. Its’ benefits are immediate and effective and we will never revert.” School Feedback (2022)
Primary physical education in Ireland is taught by generalist teachers. We needed to find ways to give non-specialist classroom teachers the confidence to become physical activity leaders and to encourage, support and nudge them to become advocates for physical activity during the school day. Teacher feedback guided us in terms of the scaffolding and resources required:
- An annual calendar of ASF key activities and training opportunities;
- Regular, short, focused online meetings;
- Quality, multi-use resources for schools;
- Ready-made physical activity challenges with integrated cross-curricular opportunities;
- An online, easy-to-use application process that allows schools to track their progress;
- Mechanisms to showcase and share best practice and innovation;
- Regular communications from the ASF team;
ASF maintains an ongoing conversation with teachers. Their feedback is used to shape the process, supports and resources as ASF continues to evolve.
The table below summarises the main findings from research undertaken in 2018. The full research papers can be accessed here.
The benefits of the Active School Flag
We now have an ASF process that works for Irish primary schools. Physical activity is becoming normalised within the school day and valued for the positive benefits that brings to the teaching and learning processes, pupil wellbeing and happiness at school. A different ‘fit’ is required for the post‐primary school sector (ages 13-19 years). This design work is currently underway in partnership with pilot schools and the University of Limerick.
“We have really enjoyed working towards our first flag. The level of physical activity has increased massively across our school. The children have had an amazing year of activities and FUN, all associated with the Active Flag initiatives. It has been such a valuable experience.” School Feedback (2022).
Take Home Messages
- ‘Finding the fit’ of a whole-of-school physical activity initiative into an educational system requires a really good understanding of schools, how they operate and their priority areas.
- Listen to and learn from teachers about what’s possible, what’s not and where support is required. Most importantly, keep paper work to a minimum!
- Affirm schools for their efforts, their creativity and their successes, wherever and whenever you can.
Competing interests: Ms. Karen Cotter is the the national coordinator of the Active School Flag initiative.
Affiliation: Active School Flag (ASF) is a Department of Education initiative, supported by Healthy Ireland and administered through Mayo Education Centre.