David Bocking hears how gifted and talented pupils are being given a chance to widen their sporting horizons
At about the height of a medium-sized house, a teenager is lying on his stomach on a diving board, looking down at his friends and teachers who are all encouraging him to jump.
"No way," he says, not unreasonably. Then 11-year-old Braden Wren appears, takes a deep breath and leaps, to general cheering. "He's got no fear, he's a Year 7," explains Reiss Gilbey, watching from the ground. "I'm a Year 9," he adds before choosing the three-metre board for his own diving attempt, rather than the towering 10-metre platform.
Reiss is a footballer, cross-country runner and badminton player, but he's never tried diving, certainly not in an international-standard pool with a gut-wrenching diving platform.
"The whole idea is for them to try things they've never tried before," says Colin Yeomans, PE teacher from St Clere's School in Stanford-le-Hope, Essex. "These kids are used to being good at what they do, and we want to see how they react when they're not very good at something. We want to see what it brings out of them."
About 20 children from St Clere's are taking part in the first year of a gifted and talented project to enable children who excel at sport to try new activities with some of the best coaches at some of the top facilities in the country. The project, two years in the planning, has already included trampolining sessions and a day's swimming and diving coaching at the City of Leeds swimming pool.
The students, aged from 11 to 16, will soon sample judo, followed by rugby union at Oxford and cycling and athletics at the Manchester Commonwealth Games facilities in the spring. In the summer there will be archery with a coach from the British Olympic team and there's a visit to Arsenal football club in the offing.
St Clere's is a language college, and Colin hopes that the possible Arsenal link might offer linguistic as well as sporting benefits to the school. "It would be nice to talk French with Thierry Henry," he says.
The St Clere's scheme was first considered when Colin Yeomans saw the struggle of two of his pupils to make the most of their sporting prowess.
They were cyclist Tom White, who despite being a British champion found himself travelling to Belgium to train and race because costs were too high in Britain, and Ellie Grafton, who excelled at every sport she tried, but for whom Colin was unable to arrange an assessment to guide her into the most suitable sport.
"It made me think that we weren't doing enough for people like Ellie," Colin says.
"In Australia, it's possible to contact a single individual at the country's institute of sport to assess a child's potential for a range of sports, and although there are signs of improvement in the UK, the only real way of testing children's talents is to give them the chance to try as many sports as possible.
"Even though you're good at one sport, it doesn't mean you're good at another until you have a go and try it," says 15-year-old netball and cricket player Hayley Law.
Hence St Clere's gifted and talented in PE programme, set up, funded and run by staff at the school, who believe the scheme is the first of its kind in England. The estimated cost of the year's programme is pound;2,250, raised from grants and from local sports related companies BB Groundscare and Oxford Racing Developments.
Teachers are running the scheme this year in their own time, either at weekends or during holidays. Parents also make a contribution for each activity (set by the school at less than 50 per cent of the actual cost), but at about Pounds 10-20 for a session of Olympicstandard training, most parents feel the money is well spent.
The coaches for the scheme are Colin's and his colleagues' friends, or contacts made through the individual sporting bodies. "I asked the children and many were already taking part in different sports at a high level, so quizzing your own students is the best way to start your coaching contacts book.
"It's amazing how helpful people can be if you pester them," Colin says.
"Once you've found the coaches they tend to be very helpful because they want to see their sport being encouraged, and they especially want good sportspeople to have a go."
The school intends to run the scheme every year, and staff will continue to look for new sports to offer participants.
"I'm learning new skills and widening my interest in sport," says 16-year-old rugby player James Wright, who'd like to become a PE teacher if he doesn't make it as a rugby professional.
Although the scheme obviously has a direct impact on individual students, Colin Yeomans believes there are also benefits for teachers and other students.
"We think the scheme will improve the standard of PE in the school," he says. "The staff and the pupils will learn from seeing the coaches in action, and in the long run the students might take coaching qualifications themselves and go out to do some coaching in our local junior schools."
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