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On a roll

How does one school produce a national champion gymnastics team without even having a sports hall? Reva Klein finds out

To look at its gym, you'd never guess that Oldfield School has 24 national athletes on roll, an under-18 gymnastic team that has been the national champion for the past three years, and the role of regional gymnastics centre of excellence for schools in the Bath and north-east Somerset area.

If its gym could be described as humble, its sports hall can only be called non-existent. That's because there isn't one. Which is odd, given that Oldfield has been a specialist sports college for the past four years.

But one of the lessons to be learned from this 11-16 girls' school with a mixed sixth-form in a leafy Bath suburb, it's that you don't need state-of-the-art gear to do gymnastics.

What you do need though is commitment. Gymnastics has been in the doldrums for the past decade because, says Joan Jackman of the British Schools Gymnastics Association, so little time has been given to it in teacher training.

"So students go into teaching having had very little gymnastics training - usually only a few hours - and are very worried about teaching it because of their inexperience, particularly because of the safety angles and litigation fears."

But commitment - and training - is something Oldfield has in bagfuls. As well as teaching gymnastics intensively to all Year 7, 8 and 9 pupils in 10-week blocks, it has an enrichment programme consisting of half a dozen extra classes a week after school and during lunchtime, including artistic gymnastics and trampolining. As part of the gymnastics curriculum, all the children learn sports acrobatics and educational, rhythmic and team gymnastics, the last of which involves four or six gymnasts creating a sequence together.

Even though the standards are high at the school (one of the girls is a Welsh international rhythmic gymnast and two have just retired from international gymnastics), director of sports Sara Grimshaw is committed to making the sport inclusive and fun for everyone.

For a start, pupils have a choice of what to wear. Compulsory leotards are out: some girls feel self-conscious in them and much prefer sports trousers and tee-shirts. The way classes are conducted takes the embarrassment out of mixed-ability classes, too. Gone are the forced demonstrations by each pupil.

"Within one class I can have an international grade performer next to a girl who can't roll. So we find simple movements that the young woman can achieve and feel good about. The emphasis is on producing quality work, however simple, so pupils work at their own pace and at their own level. I want them to feel proud of what they achieve, even with basic movement. Another thing we do is put energy into getting them to appreciate each other's ability to achieve."

As a specialist sports college, Oldfield is funded to provide outreach support to the community. It asked local primaries what they needed help with and they said gymnastics and dance. In the absence of an LEA advisory teacher for PE, the college runs in-service courses for teachers and also employs two advisory teachers, one for dance and one for gymnastics, to work with primary teachers.

Gymnastics advisory teacher Nicole Pecchia works with schools in eight-week blocks, focusing on three lesson plans: jumping, balancing and travelling. The first time she introduces a lesson, the class teacher observes. The following week, the teacher repeats the lesson and she observes and offers an evaluation.

The system allows teachers in the 35-odd primary schools that Nicole Pecchia works with to gain confidence and expertise they are unlikely to get elsewhere. Oldfield students, too, share their expertise by coaching in primary schools and gymnastics clubs. The young gymnasts, all of whom have training in assistant coaching, love working with the younger children and, to judge by the look on the primary pupils' faces, the enthusiasm is reciprocated.

Sara Grimshaw is proud of gymnastics at the college and is only too aware of the rigour required to sustain the high standards. Health and safety, one of the major worries for many schools, is paramount. "If you're not confident, if you haven't been taught to support children effectively, you always run the risk of a child hurting themselves. Even when you do everything by the book, if a child lands incorrectly, they can be hurt," she says.

The college minimises the risks by having staff as highly qualified as possible. For example, those who teach trampolining have to have a National Governing Body Award of the British Gymnastics Association. In addition, equipment is regularly serviced and ground rules for discipline and safe behaviour are established from the beginning. Teachers know that children are not to be left unattended in the gym for even a few minutes.

But in the end, there is no magic involved in the college's achievements in gymnastics. "We're so successful because we spend time doing it and the children get a real sense of achievement and enjoyment from it."

British Gymnastics Association Tel: 01952 820 330To contact Joan Jackman of the British Schools Gymnastics Association forinformation on training teachers, tel: 01278 751702

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