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In on the action

Bernard Adams reports on how a town hall commitment has dramatically increased pupil interestin competitive sports

There has been a dramatic upturn in pupil involvement in sport in the London borough of Richmond-upon-Thames over the past two years. Numbers have doubled, largely as a result of the Competitive Edge project - politically willed and, initially, financially supported by Richmond council. The secret has been the creation of effective partnerships between the local education authority, schools, sporting clubs and national organisations.

PE teachers often have neither the time nor the inclination to become involved in inter-school sport, and this was also true in Richmond schools.

In 2002, only 25 per cent provided two hours per pupil per week; by 2004 the figure had risen to 66 per cent. But the schools are now confident they will comfortably exceed the Government's 2006 target of 75 per cent of pupils taking part in at least two hours of high-quality PE and sport per week.

Competitive Edge is the brainchild of the Conservative council's deputy leader, Geoffrey Samuel. A comprehensive headteacher for 23 years, he now holds the schools cabinet post in the council. "There has been a deficit in school sport, and an increasing one, for some time," he says. "Competitive Edge is about the contribution that games involving competition and teamwork can make to pupils' lives. We also believe that providing this competitive element will support existing PE provision."

School sport, he says, has spin-offs. "It can modify the attitudes of disaffected or potentially disaffected pupils, mainly boys. The will to succeed, which good sports coaches try to instil into their charges, is an important asset to pupils and schools alike."

With a kick-start investment of pound;50,000 from the council, a steering group was set up in 2003. Its first major task was to draw in key partners - St Mary's University College in Strawberry Hill, the Rugby Football Union, Sport England, the borough's sports college at Whitton and The Richmond and Twickenham Times came on board early on.

Gary Palmer, who had taught PEat the local Grey Court School for 15 years, was at this point working full-time for the Government-funded School Sport Partnership, charged with the task of expanding school sport in the borough. One of his tasks was to check whether all the scheduled fixtures were being played. "In the first year, it was only about 50 per cent," he says. "Now, 95 per cent are played." He used the simple expedient of telling schools he would pass on to the borough's chief education officer the figures for games played and games cancelled.

But carrots rather than sticks are by far the most important part of the programme. The main carrots were three big events, spaced out over the past year. The launch was in May 2004 - a cricket festival for 300 pupils at the Teddington Cricket Club ground. Then, in the autumn, Whitton Sports College hosted a quadrathlon, which involved teams of three boys and three girls from schools across the borough competing in four sports: indoor rowing, cyclo-cross, cross-country running and target golf (an exercise in chipping and putting).

More recently, there was a giant indoorsoutdoors rugby festival in February, when 400 pupils from 27 primary and secondary schools competed for trophies presented by the Duke of Edinburgh. When they weren't playing competitive rugby, participants had sessions with coaches from Harlequins, London Irish and the England women's team. Most of this took place in the huge sports hall at St Mary's College in Strawberry Hill.

Participation levels show how popular these events have been. But Gary Palmer stresses how much hard graft had to go into the initial search for sponsorship. "One striking success was with Waitrose, who fed the children at lunch time at all the big events with something a lot more solid and tasty than adrenalin."

Even though funding will be well below the initial pound;50,000 in future years, some of the events seem likely to become permanent fixtures - including the girls' football tournament and the quadrathlon at Whitton School, which is upgrading to a panathlon (a multi-sport event). In other words, the project is becoming self-sustaining.

Gary Palmer believes that Richmond's Government-funded sports co-ordinators - teachers who can spend up to half of each week working exclusively on school sport - have made a huge contribution to the project's success.

"Currently there are four in the borough; next year there will be eight," he says.

Sue Raynor, head of Whitton Sports College, feels that Competitive Edge "has raised the profile of sport among young people in the borough". She is very positive about the quadrathlon: "Our multi-sport event reached a new set of children in the Richmond schools, as well as the ones who are expert at the more traditional games. Our junior sports leaders helped to run teams and events on the day."

One of them, James Parrack, was delighted with being a cross-country marshal. "It was wonderful seeing so many people of different ages and from different schools coming together," he says.

The Competitive Edge programme has succeeded in delivering the essential foundation for all sporting competition - participation. It has made waves high enough to splash over profitably into other boroughs.

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