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Bridging the Gap: Masters by Research Success

by | Jul 27, 2021 | News

Joe Armstrong, Children & Young People’s Programme Coordinator, has recently completed his Master’s by Research within the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham University.

Funded by County Durham Sport, Joe’s thesis (Bridging the gap: A qualitative study of pupils PE experiences and practices across the primary to secondary school transition) explores pupils’ experiences of the primary to secondary transition in PE, seeking to identify transitional issues affecting their engagement with the subject.

When commencing his research in October 2019, Joe had planned to visit both primary and secondary schools to explore the transition in a PE context. However, just as his initial visits to local schools had been due to begin, the first nationwide Covid-19 lockdown hit in March 2020 and plans had to be quickly altered. Eventually, Joe managed to reach hundreds of pupils around transition age through an online survey, meaning his research could continue without too much disruption. Here he discusses further the process he undertook throughout his Master’s experience:

How did you initially get involved with the project?

Around the time I was due to graduate from my undergraduate degree, the Master’s by Research project was advertised and it seemed to be a perfect fit for me as I had already been involved with research around the school sport landscape whilst at university.

How much did the pandemic alter your plans and the final thesis?

The pandemic certainly altered the methodology of my research as I was due to visit schools in March 2020, a month that will now forever be synonymous with the first Covid-19 national lockdown. At that point in time, I still had a deadline of September 2020 to complete my research so I had to find an alternative way to collect data fairly quickly. The biggest difference between what I had planned to do and what I actually did (collect data through an online survey) was the amount of responses I received. Had I visited schools and held focus groups, I would never have received as much data as I did through the online survey. From a methodological standpoint, there are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches and these are covered in my final thesis, but ultimately it was about being pragmatic in what were truly unprecedented circumstances. Whilst my research objectives remained constant throughout, I just had to think a little differently as to how I would approach them.

What would you do differently if you were starting the research now?

When I first began my research I probably underestimated just how many different factors influence children around the age of transition and how this can then impact on their physical activity levels. It took me longer than anticipated to really narrow down my focus on key issues, simply because there are so many. If I were to now carry out similar research, I would probably spend less time worrying about knowing everything there is to know about a topic and try to focus more on understanding what difference my research could make within that respective area.

What is the biggest thing you learnt whilst carrying out your research?

The most valuable lesson I learnt whilst carrying out my research is that change isn’t necessarily a bad thing and, in many cases, can lead to opportunities that otherwise never would have presented themselves. Once it became evident that Covid-19 wasn’t going to disappear overnight, I realised that flexibility was going to be crucial in completing my research and that if I became too fixed on my original plans then I would likely face problems in submitting my thesis without delays.

Who is best placed to benefit from your research?

I would like to think my findings are fairly novel and certainly contributes to new knowledge in the area. The obvious answer would be PE teachers working with pupils around transition age, but I believe that my findings could actually benefit many other individuals and organisations working around the transition. Whilst the thesis focuses on PE specifically, there are issues addressed that could help to better inform parents, teachers, sports coaches and policy makers. There are so many different factors that can influence children around the transition that in turn can impact on their physical activity levels and PE is just one of those. Looking at issues in isolation is perhaps why the primary to secondary transition remains so problematic and I think a more holistic approach from schools would certainly help to improve pupils’ transitional experiences.

What’s next for this piece of research?

My research will inform a ‘transitional toolkit’ that will help to improve young people’s physical activity levels around the primary to secondary transition – focusing not only on PE – but various sites in which they can be active.

To view Joe’s thesis in full, please visit

To discuss this research further, please contact Joe at