The “bit by bit” approach to an active school (and writing a thesis!) – Alan Finnegan.

My two years as a postgraduate research student in the PESS Department was capped off in August last with my graduation day in the University of Limerick.

A global COVID-19 pandemic was not foreseen when I proposed my research project to Dr. Elaine Murtagh in February 2019, but how quickly things can change. The disruption to day-to-day life and schools’ migration to periods of online teaching and learning certainly forced the research project plan to be adapted and changed but that didn’t stop it in its tracks.

My research investigated the implementation of a whole-school physical activity (PA) promotion model, the ‘Comprehensive School PA Programme’ (CSPAP), in an Irish urban post-primary school. The CSPAP incorporates five components to increase PA of school communities: physical education, PA before and after school, PA during school, staff involvement and family/community engagement. The CSPAP aims to help students achieve 60 minutes of daily MVPA using a multi-stakeholder whole-school approach (CDC 2013). CSPAP research to date has predominantly taken place in primary school settings. In recent years, the PAfH Active School Flag Post-Primary team in UL have carried out research in this area and have redeveloped the Active School Flag programme for post-primary schools in Ireland. A unique facet to this study is my school is currently constructing a new school campus, presenting an opportunity to inform what is included in the new school campus that would promote a physically active school culture. The project consisted of three phases of data collection lasting nine months: pre-, during and post-CSPAP implementation. Data was collected from students and staff, including a student questionnaire, focus groups, an interview with senior management and a teacher-researcher journal, and then analysed thematically.

As part of my CSPAP intervention to promote an active school culture, I ran a PA awareness poster campaign, introduced the concept of movement integration (also known as physically active learning) in academic lessons to staff, ran a staff steps challenge and yoga programme, held wellbeing days centred around physical activity for staff and students, whilst 5th Year students led a 1st Year students’ lunchtime dance programme. The clue is in this blog title, a bit-by-bit approach can help implement a CSPAP given the workload that is involved if you try to address all five components of a CSPAP at once. By assessing a school’s needs, priorities are identified, and plans are then put in place to work towards a more active school culture.

The CSPAP has had many successes, such as the positive effect on staff cohesion that was brought about through the staff steps challenge. Also, the popularity of the 5th Year student-led dance programme for 1st Years demonstrated the power and potential of peer-led PA. The CSPAP wasn’t without its challenges, such as staff time constraints as a barrier to their own PA participation, and to their ability to facilitate or lead PA. Also, the long skirt and deck shoes as part of the school uniform arose as a barrier for female students to be physically active at school. Staff also need to be supported through experiential training for movement integration in their lessons if the reluctance to implement such an approach is to be overcome.

Carrying out this action research in my school showcased the great work that is being done to promote and value PA as part of our school culture, evident through a broad physical education and after-school extra-curricular activities provision. We also have strong community links to access PA facilities given the lack of on-campus PA infrastructure, but it is worth noting that green spaces for PA purposes in the new school campus were desired by both students and staff. My school is now formally part of the Active School Flag Post-Primary programme. Having a Transition Year (4th Year) Active School Flag class group for two class periods a week has been valuable in making our CSPAP more sustainable, as one of my key learnings from my research was that a coordinated and collaborative whole-school implementation effort, with students also leading PA, is needed for sustainable CSPAPs.

I have been fortunate to have been able to share my research at a number of conferences and forums. I presented workshops on the topic of active school culture at the last two annual PEAI conferences (October 2021 & 2022), as well as online at the Teaching Council of Ireland’s Féilte 2021 (click here for workshop recording). In UL I have presented my research poster at the Health Research Institute Research Day in April and at the PEPAYS forum in June (see poster). My thesis can also be accessed on the National Educational Research Directory here, also summarised through the T-Rex byte I created.

Balancing part-time postgraduate research and full-time teaching over the last two years has been challenging but very satisfying. What may have seemed a mission impossible when starting to write my thesis, became much more achievable through a bit-by-bit approach, just like my approach to promoting an active school culture. For anyone undertaking academic writing, the best advice I got from my supervisors Dr. Elaine Murtagh and Mrs. Ursula Freyne was to “keep throwing down the sand”, relating my thesis-writing to the building of a sandcastle and how in order to build it you need to keep throwing down the sand first and then mould it to your liking.

On that note, I would like to say a special thank you to Elaine and Ursula for all their positivity, encouragement and support along the way, and to the ASFPP group for their advice also. My whole postgraduate student journey started because of the call for applications on the PESS twitter account for the Pat Duffy Teaching and Coaching Scholarship in early 2020. Without being awarded this scholarship I would not be writing this blog today as a MSc graduate. Finally, I would like to thank the Teaching Council of Ireland for their support through the John Coolahan Research Support Framework.


Alan Finnegan is a Master of Science by Research graduate from the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences, University of Limerick, after having initially graduated with a BSc in Physical Education from UL. He is a full-time teacher of Physical Education and Gaeilge in Gaelcholáiste Luimnigh, an all-Irish post-primary school in Limerick City, with a special interest in physical activity and wellbeing promotion in his school. He is also a member of the PEAI Executive.

Contact:  Follow on Twitter: @AlanFinnegan4

Tagged with: