Research linking physical education to improved thinking and learning in school

What are the purposes and aims of the trial?

Scientists at the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University are testing how the content of school PE affects brain function and academic performance. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and Wellcome Trust are funding an evaluation of the effect of PE on pupils’ academic test performance. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) is inviting schools to be involved in this evaluation, which has the potential to underline the importance of PE in the curriculum and have a major influence on education policy. NatCen Social Research will be undertaking the evaluation of the trial.

Physical exercise has been shown to have positive effects on the brain and to improve cognitive performance, both immediately and in the long-term. Scientists at Oxford and Oxford Brookes have developed a programme of activities for PE lessons that aim to optimise the benefit of PE for brain function. The purpose of this research is to assess the impact of PE on academic performance and will focus on pupils currently in year 7. The evaluation will start in the summer term 2017 and finish in the summer term 2018.

How have schools been selected to take part?

The schools have been randomly selected by NFER from their Register of Schools. For schools that are Local Authority (LA) maintained, we have notified the LA of the schools selected for the trial. Participation is voluntary.

What does participation involve?

All schools that participate would:

  • provide the names, genders, dates of birth, free school meal eligibility and UPNs for all current year 7 pupils
  • complete a short online survey in spring term 2017 and summer term 2018 (by the PE key contact)
  • distribute information sheets and forms to parents/guardians of the current year 7 pupils
  • log basic information about every year 8 PE lesson throughout the year via a smartphone/tablet-based app. This will take less than one minute per lesson
  • allow members of the research teams to visit the school 3-4 times over the course of the study to record year 8 pupils’ activity during PE lessons
  • assist NatCen Social Research by providing information, data, and facilitating access to relevant school staff, pupils, and activities.
  • with the support of the research team, administer assessment tests to some or all pupils in the year group at the start and end of the research period. These comprise:
    • fitness tests – a shuttle-run or ‘beep test’ of cardiovascular fitness, performed at the beginning and end of the year
    • online cognitive (memory and attention) testing sessions – approximately 1 hour; administered at school or given as homework
    • student self-report questionnaires (about physical activity, sleep, mood, motivation and wellbeing) approximately 30 minutes; administered at school.

In addition, the University of Oxford will be conducting a sub-study with a small number of year 8 pupils which would require written, informed consent from the pupils' parents/guardians. This would be an optional part of the trial and would involve MRI brain scanning at the University of Oxford, as well as additional fitness and cognitive tests.

Schools which are randomly assigned to the intervention sample, participation in the trial will also involve:

  • delivery of the new PE programme
  • training for all year 8 PE teachers (a two-hour training session in Oxford) and top-up training (up to one hour per term either in person or online)
  • in the autumn term 2017, delivery of assembly by PE teachers to year 8 pupils to inform them of the study (materials will be provided).

Schools which are randomly assigned to the control sample would be required to continue to deliver PE lessons as normal, with no change.

Measuring pupil outcomes for the evaluation

An important aspect of the evaluation is to measure the participating pupils’ performance in maths. Schools would be required to liaise with NatCen to facilitate their administration of the GL Assessment Progress Test in Maths (PTM) at the end of the research i.e. summer term 2018.

How will schools benefit from being involved in the trials?

We hope that schools will be interested in participating in order to investigate PE lessons which can help children do better at school. As a thank you for their help, each school will receive £500 payment. Participation in this evaluation also presents an excellent opportunity for pupils to see science in action and to recognise the importance or physical activity.

How will NFER use and protect the data collected from schools?

Pupil data collected from schools will be matched to that held in the National Pupil Database (NPD). For the purpose of research only, this information would be shared with the science team at Oxford, The Wellcome Trust, EEF, EEF’s data contractor FFT Education, NatCen and DfE and, in an anonymised form, to the UK Data Archive. Pupils’ data will be treated with the strictest confidence. No school or pupil will be indentified in any report arising from the research.

Ethical review

Oxford University has strict ethical procedures on conducting research with young people. The Fit to Study project, in which we are inviting your school to participate, has been reviewed by, and received ethical clearance through, the University of Oxford Central University Research Ethics Committee.

There are no particular risks associated with participation. The participating pupils may sometimes be more physically active than they would usually be during PE lessons, but this will be within currently recommended levels.

All research activities planned for the independent evaluation of Fit to Study will require approval from a Research Ethics Committee at NatCen Social Research. Ethical approval will be sought before the start of the evaluation.

Oxford University has agreed to act as research sponsor for the Study and has in place appropriate indemnity and/or compensation provisions for negligent harm arising specifically from an accidental injury for which the University is legally liable. Further, in accordance with usual research project, procedures, the University has in place Public Liability and Professional Indemnity/negligence insurance that will cover the operation of the Study in terms of the actions of University employees.

Who can you contact for more information?

Our aim is that schools’ experience of taking part in this research is a positive one and we are on hand to support you throughout if required.

Contact the NFER team

Please feel free to contact us on 01753 637338 or via email at if you have any queries or require further information.

The Fit to Study team at Oxford Brookes University

The Oxford research team are happy to answer any further questions or visit schools to discuss the study further.


Telephone: 01865 483469

Address: Trial Team - Fit to Study, OxINAHR, The Colonnade, Oxford Brookes University, Gipsy Lane Campus, Headington, Oxford, OX3 0BP

You may also contact:

Principal Project Investigator, Professor Heidi Johansen-Berg


Telephone: 01865 222548

NatCen Social Research

For more information about the evaluation of the trial please call 0808 281 9513 or email