A sporting chance

6th July 2007 at 01:00
Hannah Frankel discovers why youngsters are jumping through hoops to improve their test results

The vaulting horse is almost as big as they are, but that won't stop these six-year-old pupils doing handstands, forward rolls and flips over it in quick succession. One false move and the rest of the school's Flying Squad will come tumbling on top of them, but the routine goes on without a hitch.

As soon as it is over, the gymnasts scuttle into carefully choreographed positions, kneel, wait five seconds for the music to reach its grand finale and breathing heavily give a beaming smile to the handful of adults. "Good," says Bob Bellew, a PE consultant and trainer, "but not good enough. Let's do it again."

This group of pupils at Marion Richardson Primary School in Tower Hamlets, east London, are used to being pushed hard. The Flying Squad consists of 30 pupils of all ages who train twice a week before school and perform at various high-profile venues.

Another two mornings a week are put aside for other budding gymnasts. No one is turned away, no matter how young or unco-ordinated they are.

Gymnastics is not something parents at Marion Richardson would necessarily choose for their children. More than 85 per cent of pupils are Bangladeshi and many attend mosque after school instead of the sports clubs. But in addition to the health and fitness benefits, parents have noticed another knock-on effect they are keen to encourage: their children are doing better in tests.

The notion of "mens sana in corpore sano" ("a healthy mind in a healthy body") has been popular with teachers for 2,000 years. But John Ridgley, headteacher at Marion Richardson, first noticed for himself a statistical correlation between gymnastics and academic results in 1996 when he started a gym club to help a dozen or so disruptive Year 6 pupils. They were expected to get level 3s in their end-of-year tests but, after a couple of terms of gymnastics, they got levels 4s or 5s.

Now every child takes gym and dance classes every week as part of the curriculum and results have gone from 21 per cent achieving the expected level 4 or above at key stage 2 in 1995, to an impressive 89 per cent last year well above the national and local average. And all this from the poorest ward in the poorest borough in the country.

Initially, John had a "gut feeling" the club was helping to raise academic standards, but now he has proof. Research by Anthony Sharpe, a teacher with a background in psychology, at nearby Seven Mills Primary School, looked at the impact of sport on academic achievement at both schools.

"I compared Year 2 Sats results with Year 6 results and found a marked improvement in attendance, reading and writing among pupils who attended sports clubs," Anthony says. "Having looked at the statistical pattern over the past three years, I can confidently say it makes a difference."

A wider 10-year study conducted at Wright Robinson Sports College in Manchester has reached a similar conclusion. Pupils who take regular exercise are up to eight times more likely to achieve good GCSE results.

English, maths and science all benefit from climbing, dance, canoeing and trampolining, as well as more traditional team sports. Another recent report found that games can provide a boost for under-achieving boys, both in terms of attainment and motivation. "Sport gives young people, who may find it harder to achieve academically, a positive way to achieve status," says Anne Buchanan, an Oxford professor and author of the report. Regular sport, as part of wider educational programmes, increase learning and skill development, she says.

St Edmund's Church of England Girls School and Sports College can attest to that. It may be based in Wiltshire, but its impact is being felt in more than 1,000 primaries across the country, including one as far away as the Shetlands.

At all of these schools, pupils are getting up early and taking part in a variety of exercises and stretches devised by St Edmund's. These range from laps of the playground to fun jumping games accompanied by music anything to clear the cobwebs and get the pupils ready for learning. The Wake 'n' Shake programme has even resulted in teachers bouncing around in the playground to contemporary pop songs to the delight of some and discontent of others.

One of the first schools to embrace the scheme was nearby Winterslow Primary. Results were monitored throughout 2003 and revealed that, on average, pupils' spelling ages increased by 12 months in a three-month period. One pupil with severe learning difficulties showed an improved spelling age of an incredible 52 months during the same period. The school reported similar results in terms of reading, maths and science, as well as better self-esteem.

Peter Ward, head of Winterslow, says Wake 'n' Shake is not solely responsible for improvements but, as the only major new initiative introduced in 2003, it deserves due recognition. "It is my firm belief that it has been a major factor in improving performance in reading and in developing pupil confidence," he says. "It's one of the most exciting developments in my 28 year career and it's now a fully established and very popular part of the school day."

Geraint Jones, director of sport at St Edmund's, insists the success of the scheme is down to common sense. "Exercise leads to a surge of serotonin in the brain, which in turn leaves you happier, more wide awake and able to concentrate. And if you feel well, you're able to learn much better. It's not rocket science, but it is very effec e."***

The benefits

Activates the brain

Aids concentration and levels of alertness

Improves attendance

Develops life skills such as team work, strategic thinking and discipline

Has a positive impact on self-confidence and motivation

* Reduces behavioural problems

Government guidelines

Pupils should take part in at least two hours of sport a week. The Government has set a target of 85 per cent of young people receiving this as a minimum by 2008. By 2010, this quota is set to be raised to four hours' exercise a week. In 2005, government figures showed only two thirds of state school pupils were spending two hours a week on PE and sport. In Scotland, there are no figures to show how many pupils hit the national target of an hour's physical activity every day.


Rock climbing boosts science lesson

Berry Hill High School, a specialist sports college in Stoke-on-Trent, has seen for itself how sport can raise standards. Ofsted has recognised that about two thirds of pupils come from "hard-pressed families" and the school is aware some pupils underperform.

"Our students have massive aspirational problems that are predominantly based around low self-esteem," says Lee Cross, a PE teacher.

Berry Hill's new initiative, called Dream + Plan = Achieve, aims to rectify this by using sport to raise standards across the curriculum.

As part of the science component, pupils went rock climbing for a day, experimenting with climbing shoes, bare feet, Vaseline and chalk to explore the role of friction.

In English, the 15-year-olds went paintballing. The lively creative writing they produced the next day aided by photos, a show-and-tell display of bruises and frames from the film The Matrix exceeded expectations.

"Many of our pupils don't have many exciting experiences in their wider lives to draw on, which can hamper their ability to write creatively or see the relevance of science," says Lee.

"By giving them these experiences, there was a significant improvement among the lower and middle-ability pupils. It's too soon to have any firm data, but the signs are very encouraging."

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