Curriculum - PE - The ball is in your court
When Max Clifford, the celebrity PR mogul, was hired by the Tennis Foundation last year, his brief was to change the perception of the sport as being a preserve of the middle classes and to get more people playing it more often.
In many ways, it was a difficult task. Many British tennis stars, such as Annabel Croft and Fred Perry, came from privileged backgrounds and, compared to football, which is played and televised all year round, tennis gets only a fraction of the media attention, much of which centres on the two weeks of the Wimbledon Championships.
However, there is a range of campaigns aimed at improving access to the sport for young people from all backgrounds.
Research carried out for The Tennis Foundation - the charitable arm of the Lawn Tennis Association - found that only 40 per cent of the public courts in the UK had some aspect of free social tennis.
The Tennis for Free campaign aims to make the 10,000 local authority tennis courts in the UK free to use. It argues that too many public courts are not used and that the reason the UK does not have more and better professional tennis players is that the sport is too exclusive and many potential champions never get to play when they are young.
The 2007-08 School Sport Survey, commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, found that tennis is the ninth most widely offered sport in schools. The proportion of schools that offer it has risen from 70 per cent in 2003-04 to 79 per cent in 2007-08, while the proportion of schools with tennis club links rose from 27 per cent to 40 per cent over the same period.
This could improve further following a pledge from corporate sponsor Aegon to provide tennis kits to 8,700 schools and redevelop 250 community court sites over the next five years.
Steve Grainger, chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust, says increasing numbers of pupils are getting to play short tennis - the adapted version of the game - at primary school and are likely to want to continue playing at secondary school. There are a host of further projects that should boost demand further.
Pupils from Cardinal Newman High in Bellshill, near Glasgow, recently took part in a tennis masterclass with Greg Rusedski, the former world number four, and Kevin Simpson, the paralympic tennis ace, through the Sky Sports Living for Sport programme. The players took nine boys through the basics before issuing beat-the-coach challenges and talking to them about their experiences in the game.
Des Bradshaw, a PE teacher and the school's Living for Sport co-ordinator, said none of the boys had played before and now want to play again.
The Youth Sport Trust created the Living for Sport programme to promote the use of sport to motivate young people who find school life difficult. Schools choose a sport depending on the pupils selected for the programme and then receive support, including visits from athlete mentors.
Aireville School, a specialist sports college for 11 to 16-year-olds in Skipton, North Yorkshire, also chose tennis for its first Living for Sport programme, and started by taking the pupils to Wimbledon.
"Many of the pupils had never left their home town, let alone experienced anything like Wimbledon," says Tony Guise, assistant head and Living for Sport lead teacher.
Following the trip, the pupils worked with a local tennis club to learn event management skills and umpiring skills. They went on to organise Aireville Wimbledon, a competition that they promoted and umpired themselves. It is now an annual event at the school.
Sporting partnerships between schools have also helped to widen participation in tennis. Independent schools are perceived to have quality facilities for certain sports, such as tennis, rugby and lacrosse. Last year Kevin Brennan, the then junior children's minister, called for more independent schools to partner local state schools to share sports resources and facilities. The Independent Schools Council says about a third of its 1,280 member schools are engaged in sports partnerships with maintained schools.
One that has is King's College School in Wimbledon, which is in partnership with nearby comprehensives Coombe Boys' School and Coombe Girls' School in New Malden. Every Friday afternoon, Year 7 pupils from Coombe Boys' School play tennis, rugby or cricket with sixth formers from King's College.
Heather McKissack, King's College School's senior mistress, is responsible for building the partnerships.
"We chose to work with them on tennis, rugby and cricket because they were sports they had more or less given up on over the years," she says.
They use the facilities of all the schools for partnership activities. Ms McKissack says the partnerships benefit King's College School staff and students as well as the younger state school pupils.
"It's very fulfilling for our staff as well as our sixth form boys, who get to work with younger pupils, which often encourages them to take elementary coaching awards. It gives them self-esteem and expertise," she says.
The Coombe boys benefit for quite different reasons, she says. "Their boys are normally picked from the bottom Year 7 group. A group of between 20 and 30 are identified as pupils for whom secondary school will be a challenge. The programme is used to raise their self-esteem and make them feel more positive about school.
The partnership has been going for four years and the sporting links are highlighted as a particular strength when the partnership is inspected, she says.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families says all maintained schools in England are in one of the 450 School Sport Partnerships, which are usually made up of a specialist sports college, eight secondary schools and about 45 primary or special schools. Each partnership receives, on average, a grant of Pounds 270,000 each year.
Opening up access to sport could generate some of the star players of the future. When he was eight or nine years old, Sam Kiladejo spotted a Tennis For Free session on public courts in Merton, near Wimbledon, when he was playing football one Saturday morning, and went over and joined in. He had a natural talent, was soon hooked and went on to win a tennis scholarship to Cheam High.
Encouraging pupils to play a sport can enrich them in many ways. At Aireville School, Mr Guise highlights the benefits that the tennis Living for Sport programme had on one particular student.
"Paula joined the school through a managed transfer and exhibited some challenging behaviours," he says.
"We asked her to take part in the programme in an attempt to prevent her going down a path towards permanent exclusion. Her attendance improved from 81.4 per cent to 92 per cent and her negative behaviour stopped. She became an active member of our school community, now represents the school in athletic events and has taken the role of student mentor for the programme."
Time will tell whether the progress made by schools, campaigns and corporate sponsorship is enough to fill tennis courts across the country all year round, and not just a few weeks inspired by Wimbledon fortnight.
- Wimbledon Tennis Championships June 22-July 5
- National School Sport Week, June 29-July 3
- The Tennis Foundation education team provides teacher support and resources, including suggestions for a tennis activity week, www.tennisfoundation.org.ukschoolsandcolleges
- Tennis for Free Campaign, www.tennisforfree.com
- Sky Sports Living for Sport, livingforsport.skysports.com
- Youth Sport Trust, www.youthsporttrust.org
- Lloyds TSB National School Sport Week, June 29-July 3, downloadable teacher planning pack and activity pack, www.schoolsportweek.org.