Fit for learning: schools sports engagement

With one in three children in the UK now overweight and one in five obese the argument for raising physical education (PE) to the same status as maths, English and science is becoming increasingly convincing. Research by the universities of Strathclyde and Dundee on the positive impact that exercise can have on academic achievement amongst teenagers offers another reason to prioritise physical activity for school children. The findings demonstrate an overall improvement in brain function, while games that are unpredictable and require problem-solving may also boost the brain’s executive functioning, which can transfer to academic tasks. 

In addition to academic improvements, PE can also have a positive impact on behaviour. The 2014 Youth Sport Trust National PE, School Sport and Physical Activity Survey found that two thirds of schools feel sport makes a positive contribution to behaviour and truancy. PE and sport have also been shown to increase the sense of connection young people feel within their school.

Physical activity programmes
However, these benefits don’t just happen; schools and their partners need to devise physical activity programmes that are carefully planned, effectively delivered and that engage with the pupils they are designed to help. Charitable social enterprise and leisure operator GLL works in partnership with schools and colleges across the UK, providing sporting venues, engaging with schools and offering tuition to young people both as part of the curriculum and ‘after school’.

Swimming has been a particular area of success and GLL has reported significant swimming participation growth within the pools it operates – up 38 per cent since 2012. The findings contrast with the recent Sport England Active People Report, which suggested that swimming participation in the UK was in decline.

The not-for-profit is the now the biggest operator of swimming facilities within both the UK public and private sectors, directly managing 106 centres with pools. Annual figures to date for 2015 show 8.1 million visits to GLL swimming facilities, demonstrating a significant 16 per cent increase on the same period in 2014. In addition, memberships at GLL’s Better Swim School are at a record high, totalling over 90,000.

The success of the former Olympic venue, the London Aquatics Centre, in East London has been a particular highlight. It recently celebrated the millionth visitor through its doors, hosts 2,000 children for school swimming sessions each week and has a further 3,300 youngsters signed up to the venue’s swim school programme.

Andrew Clark, GLL’s Aquatics Manager, comments: “The fantastic growth we’ve seen in our pools reflects our recognition that the way the general public want to use aquatic facilities has changed over the past decade and we have had to adapt to accommodate it.

“We’ve developed pool programmes to cope with the varied demands of pool users and innovated where necessary.  We’ve seen more effective intensive school swimming lessons being introduced and have worked hard to make conventional competitive pools more fun, for example by adding inflatable playgrounds.”

Of course swimming and water safety is a statutory part of the National Curriculum, with the aim that by the age of 11 (the end of key stage 2) all pupils should be taught to swim at least 25 metres unaided. So, schools have a number of responsibilities in providing a swimming programme and the ASA – the governing body for swimming in England – offers guidance and advice on delivering these programmes in the best and safest way. Yet GLL is also active outside the curriculum and works with schools at a local level to encourage sports participation in other areas, while encouraging students to develop life-long behaviours that include regular physical activity.

Royal Greenwich Sportathon
One flagship initiative is the Royal Greenwich Sportathon – a week-long celebration of sport for primary school children in the borough.
Initially created as an Olympic legacy event to celebrate the award of the 2012 Olympic Games to London, Sportathon has also been awarded the prestigious London 2012 Inspire Mark as an outstanding event which contributes to the Games’ lasting legacy.

The annual event sees all of Greenwich’s 66 primary schools involved with approximately 3,000 children from Years 3 and 4 in three scoring and one non-scoring event. Activities include athletics, basketball, handball, netball and hockey. A wheelchair relay using sports wheelchairs is also included. According to event organiser and Sports Development Manager at GLL Jonathan Dixon, the event ‘makes children think about the challenges of being disabled and teaches them about Paralympic sport’.

Sportathon is non-selective and every child who takes part receives a certificate, while the top three schools progress to the finals and compete for the Sportathon Shield. All participants also receive incentives to take part in sports courses at GLL-operated leisure centres within the borough, summer activities and free swimming vouchers.

Jonathan Dixon explains: “The aim of the event is to inspire kids and show them what fun sports can be. We want them to go on and take up regular physical activity and relive the passion and excitement they’ve experienced taking part in the event.”

Making less active less likely
Earlier this year the Youth Sports Trust launched its manifesto, ‘Unlocking Potential: A Manifesto for PE and School Sport’. It cites figures showing just 21 per cent of boys and 16 per cent of girls met recommended guidelines for moderate exercise per day and that British children born today were on course to be 35 per cent less active by 2035.

The document calls for every child to receive at least two hours of ‘high‑quality’ PE per week and an additional three hours of other physical activity. While the figures are concerning in themselves, they identify one of the hardest groups to reach as girls. Research published earlier by the Government Equalities Office states that girls lose motivation to play sport after the age of seven, frequently as a result of self-consciousness and loss of confidence. Perception is a common problem, with many girls considering ‘boys’ sports’ to be rough, while boys believe that girls lack skill. The lack of female sporting role models also had a negative impact.

For the girls
In 2014 GLL secured £200k of funding from Sporta and Sport England’s Make Your Move programme, for its ‘For the Girls, By the Girls’ project. The scheme aims to encourage 5,000 girls and women aged between 14 years and 25 years who have not previously been physically active to take part in a range of sports. The scheme was launched at the iconic Copper Box Arena on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park by former Big Brother winner and personal fitness trainer Josie Gibson and GB Olympian Jade Johnson.

One of the key tenets of the programme is that it is run for women and girls, by women and girls with feedback and ideas actively solicited from the local community. Affordable daytime and evening sports sessions are run by female instructors and to date feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive.

‘For the Girls’ is currently being piloted across five regions: Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Greenwich, South Oxon and Cambridge with activities including netball, boxing, cheerleading, volleyball, basketball, football, aquatics and street dance and it is hoped the scheme will be rolled-out nationwide in 2016.

One participant, Haizea from Cambridge comments: “I am 15 years old and I live in Cambridge. Before joining the project I was never into sport or exercising at all. I hated PE. At first I wasn’t interested and had made up my mind not to join in, but since I was introduced to these project sessions I realised that this felt fun and it made me want to become active and change.

“I was quite lazy and had been a bit bored before and doing the exercise I was shown on this project inspired me to join in on the lessons, I decided that I wanted to be more active and became more confident.”

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