After the exciting results of the Olympics and with thoughts already turning to the 2012 Games, schools are about to be deluged with sports hype. Cheerleaders of physical endeavour claim it can deliver not only a sculpted physique, but also higher exam results and better behaviour. But before you rush off to buy an extra box of footballs, it is worth considering whether these claims stand up to scrutiny.
The private sector has long embraced the work hard, play hard mentality, with pupils expected to excel on the rugby field as well as in the exam hall. But the state sector has traditionally been wary of the philosophy of physical education as a panacea, perhaps suspecting that time given to hockey will count against pupils at exam time.
That trend seems to be changing, with 90 per cent of pupils getting more than two hours' sport a week, according to the latest Government figures. That's an increase of four million pupils since 2002.
Annette Montague, schools director at the Youth Sport Trust, says: "Fifteen years ago, many were scared to take risks and some, for good reasons, wanted to avoid competitive sports. That is changing, although some are still reluctant to let go of the academic stuff and try engaging pupils in other ways."
Research shows that dedicating more time to sport can improve achievement and behaviour, at least in some cases, and it certainly is not detrimental, as sceptics suggest.
Professor Richard Bailey, a sports expert from Birmingham University and co-author of the British Educational Research Association's analysis of school sport, says: "While there is no evidence it directly improves results, it affects areas that mediate that, such as concentration and attention.
"There is also evidence it makes schools more attractive for children, it can affect their self-esteem, and some research suggests that participating in sports clubs makes them more likely to go to university."
This has been the experience of the Youth Sport Trust, which has overseen the development of the UK's 430 specialist sports colleges since their inception in 1997. For the past three years, these schools have achieved bigger improvements in GCSE pass rates than average across their specialist peers. And many have reported improved attendance.
At Failsworth School in Manchester, the percentage of pupils awarded five good GCSEs has increased from 29 to 69 per cent and exclusions have been slashed by a quarter since it became a specialist sports college in 2000.
David Johnson, its head, says: "We border on Newton Heath, where Manchester United originates, and sport is part of the culture. You only have to look at the Rugby World Cup or the Olympics to see the power and passion it inspires. We're about putting that at the heart of school life."
Granted, the sponsorship money has been helpful. But Mr Johnson is adamant that sport has been just as big a factor in improving pupil performance. The lunchtime clubs for sports - from motorcross to water polo, attracting as many as 500 pupils a day - have been instrumental in changing attitudes.
"It gives pupils a reason to want to come into school. It hooks them in," he says.
Professor Margaret Talbot, chief executive of the Association for Physical Education, agrees that a good choice of activities is essential for motivating hard-to-reach pupils.
"I'm a great believer that there is something for everyone," she says. "There is nothing wrong with competitive sports, but PE is so much more than that, from dancing to swimming to yoga. You need to get children involved in the choice of activities and not impose things."
Local clubs can greatly help schools to widen their range of activities by offering expert coaches. The latest Government figures suggest that heads are making the links, with the average school boasting ties to about eight clubs, up from five in 200304.
Corpus Christi Sports and Technology College in Preston, Lancashire, has increased the number of its borderline pupils achieving C-grades at GCSE through an innovative programme that links sport with core subjects such as maths, English and science.
David Botes, its assistant head, says: "These were disaffected kids who could have dropped to Ds or Es, but our programme gave them something different."
Corpus Christi pupils were given a four-month alternative curriculum of sports-themed lessons in the spring term before GCSEs. This included studying graphs in the school's fitness suite, understanding scientific concepts by measuring the speed of a ball in play, and practising speaking and listening by devising football commentaries.
"It improved their confidence across the board," says Mr Botes.
Although some staff were sceptical about pupils missing normal lessons so close to exam time, the results have silenced critics, with scores among the target group increasing year-on-year to the point where nearly 60 per cent now attain C-grades in the exams they take.
Behaviour is another area where grand claims are made for team sports, as exemplified by the drive to instil Olympic values of friendship, respect and excellence in children. The research evidence is equivocal, but a Sport in Education project by Canterbury Christ Church University indicated that some "appropriately structured activities" can encourage a sense of personal responsibility, as long as there are clear links to the social skills they are targeting.
A much-cited 1950s French study replaced a quarter of the academic timetable with sport and found that not only did results fail to deteriorate, but also children were more attentive and there were fewer problems with discipline and absenteeism.
Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, tried the approach, targeting a personalised physical education programme at poorly behaved pupils.
"We just had a feeling that in a lot of cases it was about attention- seeking caused by low self-esteem and body image," he says.
A year later, some of the naughtiest children have "fallen off the radar completely", he says.
"There's one Year 11 boy who was one of the worst behaved. Now he is always in the fitness centre, and you can see he has a genuine sense of pride in building up muscles. It's amazing considering his relationship with the school a year ago."
This ethos has to be at the heart of an effective physical education programme; the sadistic sink-or-swim mentality will not do when it comes to improving behaviour and boosting achievement.
"It's about promoting the values of sport, the skills of sport and, most of all, good teaching," says Ms Montague. "Once you have those covered, go for it."
HOW TO BUILD A CONSTRUCTIVE SPORTS POLICY
- Consider your audience. What physical activities excite pupils in your area?
- Include something for everyone. Devise a timetable that will motivate even disengaged teenagers and the less sporty.
- Make cross-curricular links. Think how you can link PE with skills and attributes needed in other subjects and across the school.
- Use lunchtime and after-school clubs. Fun activities peppered throughout the day can motivate pupils to get involved.
LEARNING COURTESY WHILE GETTING FIT
Laurie Cornwell is ranked a fourth-dan black belt in taekwondo. The perfect training to be a classroom teacher in London? Perhaps. But it also means she can teach the sport, which sets great store by the values of courtesy, integrity, perseverance, control and something martial arts aficionados call the "indomitable spirit".
"Taekwondo . is steeped in discipline and we encourage children to follow the tenets," says Laurie, a PE teacher at Mellow Lane School in Hayes, north west London. "We get them to think about using these values throughout the school, and if we get reports back that they haven't, we'll talk about it. We'll say, `Why is it you can show this value in taekwondo, but you can't elsewhere?'"
The sport is taught to key stage 3 and 4 pupils in an after-school club, which has brought many isolated pupils out of their shell, Laurie says.
"The benefit of taekwondo is that you are doing it on your own and there is no benchmark. You're only trying to improve for yourself. So these types of pupils feel more comfortable," she says.
Behaviour has definitely improved, she says. "You can see some pupils are much more polite and respectful. And the harder pupils, well, it's made them realise they're not Jack the Biscuit," she laughs.
And while she is reluctant to take credit for recent rises in the percentage of pupils getting good GCSE passes - up 19 points to 53 per cent this year - she believes the sport has motivated pupils.
"They think it's brilliant. They really appreciate the skills it's giving them and they're having fun and getting fit," she says.