Ahead of the Games: how sports schools are on the right track

13th August 2010 at 01:00
Two years before the Olympics even start, specialist institutions are grabbing the unrivalled opportunities 2012 offers to raise pupil ambition and attainment. Richard Vaughan reports from Manchester

It is now less than two years until the London 2012 Olympic Games begin, bringing with them hundreds of thousands of visitors, billions of pounds of investment and, of course, four weeks of sporting prowess.

As the countdown to the curtain-raiser begins in earnest, some are questioning how much of an impact the "world's greatest sporting event" is having outside its east London home.

But for specialist sports schools all over the country, the Olympics represent a golden opportunity to inspire and motivate pupils, and improve their results.

Hundreds of miles from London, in Manchester, two specialist sports schools are already making the most of the 2012 Games, even though there are still two years to go until the opening ceremony.

Trafford is an area best known as the home of one of the UK's biggest and most prestigious sporting institutions - Old Trafford, Manchester United's home ground. It is also the site of Flixton Girls' High School, a specialist sports college using the Olympics to help boost its students' self-esteem and turn them into active members of society.

Trafford is a Jekyll and Hyde sort of area - a mix of leafy suburbia and down-at-heel urban fringes. It is a selective local authority that performs relatively well in the assessment tables, but this hides a darker story of chronic underachievement that dogs many of the area's young people.

Despite being a stone's throw from the shabbiness often found around football grounds, the school itself is a handsome 1930s art-deco building set in fairly salubrious streets.

However, this comfortable appearance is deceptive. Like many state-maintained schools in selective authorities, Flixton Girls' suffers from the aftermath of the 11-plus. Many of its pupils also experience profound social problems.

"Approximately 50 per cent of our intake are from broken or split families, which brings with it various issues," headteacher Julie Hazeldine says. "A third of our pupils have special educational needs in some shape or other, and we have serious problems with our girls falling in with the wrong crowds.

"There is a very prominent gang culture in and around Manchester and many of our girls can fall prey to it. We had one girl recently who had been gang-raped the night before she came in to sit one of her GCSEs."

Because of this threat of pupils being led astray, one of the primary aims for Flixton's staff is to raise the self-esteem and confidence of its pupils - a task Ms Hazeldine describes as "massive".

The school does this by focusing on, and reiterating, the ethos that underpins sport. It also uses coaching techniques - both in the way teachers approach work and their pupils, and between the pupils themselves. Older pupils often act as coaches or mentors for their younger peers.

Lisa Austin, the school's director of specialism, says: "We try to get our pupils to look at the messages that come through sport, and how we use sport. Sport is about leadership, coaching and teamwork. But it doesn't matter if you are not very good at sport - you can use these values when it comes to the academic side of school and excel in that as well."

The school has adopted the Olympic values as their own, championing qualities such as excellence, friendship, courage and determination to help inspire its pupils to succeed. It also frequently invites former Olympic medal-winners to speak to the girls about what can be achieved if they apply themselves.

"What we try and get through to our students is that these Olympians are just like them - they have a great deal in common with them," Miss Austin says. "It shows what they can do if they try, but they have to be prepared to put the work in."

"Sport and the Olympics are embedded in everything we do," adds Ms Hazeldine.

The results of this focus are starting to show. Two years ago, the school was languishing near the bottom of the league tables, with just 39 per cent of students achieving five A* to Cs including maths and English at GCSE.

However, the sports specialism has helped to move the results rapidly in the right direction.

"Last year we managed 43 per cent, including English and maths. This year we are predicting 52 per cent, and 58 per cent the year after," Ms Hazeldine adds.

"We receive #163;120,000 a year through our specialist sports status, but we spend a lot more than that in what we do. Sport is the way we get to our pupils, but it is not just about sport.

"We are using the forthcoming Olympics as a way into history (such as Hitler's notorious 1936 Games in Berlin), geography and maths, and our business pupils are looking at it to see what kind of an impact it will have on the community economically."

In the final weeks before the Games begin, the Olympic torch will pass through Manchester on its relay around the UK. Ms Hazeldine is determined that the 2012 Olympics will embody something far more lasting and wide-ranging than just four weeks of sport in a previously little-known patch of east London.

"It is about community as much as it is about sport, and we are trying to turn these girls around so they can be valuable members of their community," she says.

"These girls are the mothers of the future, and if they leave here as well-rounded young women who want to remain in the area, then through the school you can have a profound impact on a community, and sport is helping us to achieve that."

At Flixton Girls', the principles of sport are used to guide pupils in a fairly understated manner. On the other side of Manchester, at Wright Robinson Sports College, sport is the first thing you notice - and it's everywhere you look.

The school, one of the largest in the country, is bigger than many international airports. With acres of football, rugby and hockey pitches, running tracks, an indoor swimming pool, two sports halls and numerous gyms, it's what you might imagine would happen if you gave a PE teacher #163;43 million to spend on a school.

And this is precisely what has happened here. Headteacher Neville Beischer is a former PE teacher who was fortunate enough to secure a newly built school in the early days of New Labour's school rebuilding programme, when cash was seemingly lapping around Messrs Blair and Brown's ankles.

At #163;43 million it was - and still is - one of Europe's biggest school private finance initiative projects, and the facilities would impress any Olympian. However, the school is more than just top-of-the-range sports facilities and flashy new buildings.

Sport is clearly its top priority, and the Olympics coming to the country gives the school a useful focal point. But like Flixton Girls', the school's focus on the Olympics goes beyond the sporting events.

"The Olympics coming is a really big deal for us - the whole school programme is affected by it," says Mr Beischer. "We are looking at every aspect of the Games, its impact culturally. We also try to look at it from a creativity standpoint, as we have a very strong tradition of performing arts."

The school is also involved with the London Olympics Get Set network, a community of schools and colleges that demonstrate a commitment to the Olympic values, and which are using the Games to get students involved in activities and projects that are tied into these values.

As part of the programme, Wright Robinson sent two Year 7 pupils to the Royal Mint, near Cardiff, to produce a video report on another pupil, who had won a national competition to design a new 50 pence coin.

"The Olympics is in everything we do. When our young people do projects such as this, they are then asked to come back and share the information with the rest of the school," said Sean Whitehead, director of specialism at Wright Robinson.

As you might expect from a school with such a sporting focus, its successes in the dizzying array of sports its pupils compete in are emblazoned on every wall. Smiling team photos and silver trophies are everywhere throughout the school, boasting about their championship-winning years.

And among these winning teams are individuals who are tipped for future glory. The school has created its own Star Squad, which gives additional training and support to pupils who are known to be among the top 10 per cent in their sport in the country.

These young people are given seminars on the importance of good nutrition and training, taught by recognised athletes such as Michelle Griffith, who represented Great Britain in the triple-jump at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

These students could well be household names in their chosen field in the years to come, perhaps even taking part in an Olympic Games themselves. But Wright Robinson is quick to impress upon its pupils the importance of education, particularly if their sporting dreams do not come true.

So when the torch is lit in Stratford on July 27, 2012, it will not only symbolise the start of a four-week binge of broken records, personal bests and gold, silver and bronze. It will also be the culmination of years of effort for the many schools which are using sport and the Olympics to foster burning ambition in their pupils.

For more on Lisa Austin of Flixton Girls' High School and other PE teachers making the move into leadership, see the TES Magazine, page 10.

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