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From fun to an Olympic sport

Two years ago pupils at Ashington community high school did not even have a table tennis table.

Now they have a full-time table tennis coach, 28 tables for themselves and their feeder schools, and they have won county and regional championships.

It is all part of the Northumberland sports college's drive to make sport more accessible to its 1,000 pupils.

"Table tennis can be leisurely and ping-pongy but take it through to competition level and it's a vigorous, aerobic sport," said Ken Tonge, headteacher, former competitive cyclist and self-confessed sports nut.

Crucially, it also appeals to children who may not be traditionally sporty.

"You don't need to be the biggest or the strongest to be successful at table tennis," said deputy head Kieran McGrane, the former head of PE. "One of our best players is not even 5ft, but can take on all-comers, including sixth-formers, and whip them easily."

The school, in a former mining town, became a specialist college in 2001 because it recognised that sport could help keep pupils in education. Table tennis was included in a range of new sports because it could be played indoors, did not need lots of space and allowed boys and girls to compete on equal terms.

Ashington employs Michael Marsden, a former England schoolboy international table tennis player, to coach the high school as well as its feeder middle and first schools, and his efforts are paying off.

Faye Stephenson, 17, played table tennis for the first time at school two years ago and now represents Northumberland at a national level.

"I didn't really like any sports before but when I started playing table tennis I did quite well," she said. "You need commitment rather than stamina, concentration during a game, and hand-eye co-ordination.

"I'm doing four AS-levels. This is my relaxation in between doing revision.

It doesn't feel like training because it's fun."

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