A whole new ball game

16th March 2001 at 00:00
Minority sports fuel students' desire to get out on the sports field, as Phil Revell discovers.

How many sports did you do at school? It's more than likely that they were all team games like soccer, rugby, rounders and netball. The traditional image of PE, with soggy students being dragged out to play yet another game of soccer has long been criticised as responsible for turning young people off fitness. But things can be very different, and at Ashton in Mersey school near Manchester, they are.

"Rugby, soccer, netball, hockey, badminton, gymnastics, basketball, rounders, boys' dance, orienteering, outdoor pursuits, golf ..." Ashton's director of PE and sport Dave Law could have kept the list going almost indefinitely. "This area is a hotbed of sport," he says. "We have sport in the curriculum, as an extra-curricular activity and in the community."

Every couple of years, Law surveys participation rates amongst the school's1,100 students. "In the last one, I found that 470 kids were members of local sports clubs, representing 122 clubs covering 38 different activities."

Of course not every secondary school has Manchester United Football Club as a main sponsor, but Law, while quick to credit the club's support for the school, is certain that sporting success would have been achieved without the high-profile links with England's premier club.

"We're lucky in that we have a lot of willing teachers who have an interest in sport, ," he says.

The school has extra resources as a specialist sports college, but Law is also keen to stress that some quite simple changes have had major effects.

"We relaxed the kit rules for the girls," he says. "We used to have skirts and knickers, and now that the girls can wear black tracksuit bottoms, participation has increased."

The changes were made after a Nike-sponsored research study carried out by the Youth Sport Trust. The research found that the traditional PEkit of blue knickers was a major reason, alongside communal showers and a diet of team games, that stopped girls participating. Researchers recommended cosmetic changes to school PE facilities alongside a curriculum which offered a wider range of sport.

At Biddick School just outside Sunderland, the children have been offered a broader PE diet for some time, with tennis and basketball as the school's main strengths, not soccer and netball.

"At Biddick we've made tennis one of our priorities," says assistant head Bob Stone. "There's a long-standing relationship with the Lawn Tennis Association. We were the first school to be part of a cmmunity tennis partnership. That brought some funding which we were able to use to develop six high quality, floodlit, acrylic courts."

Biddick is another sports college, committed not only to developing its own facilities, but to working with partner schools.

"We've introduced short tennis to our feeder primaries, not just on a one-off basis, but on a long-term footing," says Stone. "After that, those youngsters who were identified as having potential were invited to a masterclass and received three hours coaching a week at Biddick as an extra-curricular activity."

The coaching came from professionals, some employed by the city of Sunderland tennis development officer, a post part-funded by the LTA. This use of professional and club coaches alongside teachers is one of the key developments in PE over the past few years. In January, Biddick appointed Jackie Hodgeson, a part-time coach whose role is to oversee the tennis development at Biddick and its feeder primaries.

"We don't want to replace teachers with coaches," stresses Stone. "But PE departments need to use people creatively if they are to offer the widest range of activities possible."

Biddick has seen enthusiasm rise among students, but not at the expense of other sports. "We need to structure the thing so that kids can see some success. There's no sense in giving a 15-year-old a full size racquet and a traditional ball - they will spend the lesson picking the ball up from the back of the court. We have seen kids who would not call themselves tennis players, but who enjoy the game, and others who now say 'I'm a tennis player'," he says.

The lessons learnt at Biddick and Ashton are passed on to schools through the Youth Sport Trust's information network. And the same message is being delivered by young athletes on the Trust's summer school courses.

"Six hundred young sports leaders were asked what could be done to increase participation," says Chris Earle at the Trust. "The answer was to offer more minority sports."

The Trust is involved in letting everyone know about the research findings, through a programme of training courses which started this month. There's also the joint venture with Sport England to roll out a network of school sport co-ordinators. A pound;30 million programme of lottery money has been committed to provide up to 1,000 locally based sports co-ordinators, to work with clusters of schools to create the same success which started in Manchester and the North East.

The Youth Trust can be contacted at www.youthsport.net PEA will be at stand Z20

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