Supporting movement skills to improve health and education in the population

Note No. 8, 3 November 2022. Nick Preston, Lucy Eddy, Liam Hill, Mark Mon Williams

Download or view policy note: Supporting movement skills to improve health and education in the population (PDF)

Policy note

Six to 17% of children have a hidden physical disability (movement skill deficit) that impedes their progress in school (eg, resulting in handwriting problems). The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation, particularly in disadvantaged communities. Movement skill deficits decrease educational attainment and increase the risk of poor physical and mental health. We have developed free assessment and treatment tools that allow these conditions to be effectively tackled in schools, reducing the burden to the NHS, but schools need to be empowered to use them.

There is a large number (6-17%) of children with movement skills deficit within UK classrooms [1,2]. Their (hidden) physical disability inhibits them from engaging fully in education which means, without support, they are at elevated risk of poor educational attainment [3]. Movement skill deficits also increase the risk of long-term physical ill-health [4] (eg, obesity, diabetes and heart disease) and mental health problems [5] (eg, depression and anxiety), placing a large burden on the NHS and education services.

Our Born in Bradford [6] research (involving 13,500+ children) showed that the COVID-19 pandemic decreased opportunities for children to acquire and develop essential movement skills, particularly in the most disadvantaged communities [7]. Our work also shows existing support for movement skills deficits is inefficient, insufficient and places a large burden on health systems.

Movement skills are critically important for school success. Handwriting is a vehicle for learning, and fundamental movement skills are essential within the Early Years curriculum. Unfortunately, children’s movement skills are not currently assessed, meaning many children are not having their educational needs supported. However, these deficits can be treated, thus reducing long-term costs to education and health services. Empowering schools to identify and treat children with physical disability could improve educational outcomes and reduce the burden on our public services.

Movement skill tools

Our research has helped create movement skill assessment and treatment tools for schools. We have:

  • Developed a free school-based screening tool (FUNMOVES [8]) to expedite the identification of hidden physical disability and reduce inequalities in the assessment pathway.
  • Produced accessible guidance for teachers (The Alps) around evidence-based physiotherapy activities [9] for schools to improve movement skills of children with these educational needs.
  • Provided evidence-led training materials to upskill teachers.
  • Developed integrated pathways of support by working with health and education policymakers to enable more seamless communication between providers.

Our key aims are to ensure these tools are made widely available to schools and educators, and to improve understanding of fundamental movement skills across the education sector.

Key findings

  • Teachers have little knowledge about fundamental movement skills, despite inclusion of these on the Physical Education curriculum [10].
  • Teachers can be trained to identify children’s learning needs using our evidence-based freely available tools.
  • School-based screening of fundamental movement skills can identify children who need additional support.
  • School-based interventions of fundamental movement skills are highly effective [11] and schools are motivated to provide these interventions when the educational benefits have been explained and evidenced.
  • Evidence-based activities to decrease disability can be accurately delivered in schools by teaching staff, reducing the burden on the NHS.

Policy implications

The evidence points to the following considerations for policy:

  • Treating movement skill deficits in schools rather than healthcare settings (ie, physiotherapy and occupational therapy) has the potential to reduce NHS pressures and improve educational attainment. This will require effective collaboration between the Department of Health and Social Care and Department for Education, to support schools to assess and treat physical disability.
  • Early Years and Primary teacher training curricula should include content about movement skills, and how to assess and treat motor difficulties.
  • Schools should be encouraged to screen children for movement difficulties, incentivised through the OFSTED framework, and should be supported to provide treatment for physical difficulties such as handwriting and fundamental movement skill problems.
  • A national online resource should be created where schools can download these evidence-based assessment and treatment tools, access training materials and obtain guidance on supporting physical disability within the classroom.

Further information

Book a time to speak to the team as part of Evidence Week in Parliament 2022, Tuesday 15 November 9am to 12pm, Jubilee Room, Westminster.

Corresponding authorNick Preston, Research Fellow, School of Medicine, University of Leeds. Email Nick Preston via

The other authors are: Lucy Eddy Research Fellow at the University of Bradford, and Liam Hill, Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, and Mark Mon Williams, Professor of Cognitive Psychology, both from the School of Psychology at the University of Leeds.

This briefing has been supported by the University of Leeds Movement and Physical Activity Interdisciplinary Research Network.

To cite this policy note, please reference: Preston et al. (2022) Supporting movement skills to improve health and education in the population. Note 8. Policy Leeds, University of Leeds.


  1. De Milander et al. (2016). Prevalence and effect of developmental coordination disorder on learning-related skills of South African grade one children. South African Journal for Research in Sport, Physical Education and Recreation, 38(2), 49-62.
  2. Amador Ruiz et al. (2018). Motor competence levels and prevalence of developmental coordination disorder in Spanish children: The MOVIKIDS study. Journal of School Health, 88(7), 538-546.
  3. Giles et al. (2018). Hitting the target: mathematical attainment in children is related to interceptive-timing ability. Psychological science, 29(8), 1334-1345. Open access version on White Rose Research Online.
  4. Barnett et al. (2021). Through the looking glass: A systematic review of longitudinal evidence, providing new insight for motor competence and health. Sports Medicine, 1-46.
  5. Rodriguez et al. (2019). Emotional and behavioral problems in 4-and 5-year old children with and without motor delays. Frontiers in Pediatrics, 474
  6. Wright et al. (2013). Cohort profile: the Born in Bradford multi-ethnic family cohort study. International journal of epidemiology, 42(4), 978-991.
  7. Bingham et al. (2021). Covid-19 lockdown: Ethnic differences in children’s self-reported physical activity and the importance of leaving the home environment; a longitudinal and cross-sectional study from the Born in Bradford birth cohort study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 18(1), 1-19.
  8. Eddy et al. (2021). Developing and validating a school-based screening tool of Fundamental Movement Skills (FUNMOVES) using Rasch analysis. PloS one, 16(4), e0250002.
  9. Preston et al. (2017). A systematic review of high quality randomized controlled trials investigating motor skill programmes for children with developmental coordination disorder. Clinical Rehabilitation, 31(7), 857-870.
  10. Eddy et al. (2021). Fundamental movement skills and their assessment in primary schools from the perspective of teachers. Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science, 25(3), 236-249.
  11. Eddy et al. (2019). A systematic review of randomized and case controlled trials investigating the effectiveness of school based motor skill interventions in 3 to 12 year old children. Child: care, health and development, 45(6), 773-790. Open access version on White Rose Research Online.