How the transformation of a sporty scallywag came to pass

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Ray Tarleton is principal of South Dartmoor community college, Devon

"I love your schoo* ..." said Kevin, a Year 6 pupil on induction day. "I especially the sports hall, and the tennis courts and the football pitch."

I smiled generously and made a mental note of his comment with the next school prospectus in mind. There was, though, a sting in the tail.

"Sir, can I ask you a question?" he said. "Do you own all this? Or are you just the headteacher?" Kevin's priorities were obvious even at the age of 11.

Owning things really mattered to him, but so did sport. Most teachers came low in the pecking order. If headteachers existed for a purpose, Kevin was certainly unaware of what it was.

I noticed Kevin again some months later when he was in the role of student guide to other school visitors. As I gazed out from my office window with something of the manner of John Cleese in the film Clockwise, but without the loudhailer, Ibegan to panic when I saw Kevin take a short-cut from the library towards the science block. Rather than take the proper path, he leapt over the fence that was blocking the way. After a few seconds'

contemplation, the parents he was escorting around the school dutifully followed suit and climbed over the fence after him, then hurriedly caught up with their young guide.

By the time he had reached Year 9, Kevin's natural charm and cheerful disrespect for authority were beginning to turn into the wilful challenge of an adolescent. Various members of staff were increasingly ordering him to leave their lessons while detentions became a regular but largely pointless feature of his life at the school. By the middle of the year, it seemed the game would soon be up. Though he was clearly talented at sport, intelligent and capable, Kevin was also disruptive for many teachers.

Finally, they had had enough.

As we moved on to fixed-term exclusions, the parents were called in and we wondered what the secret to success might be with Kevin. Of course, every child is different, but it is well-known that underperforming boys are far from an endangered species, even after years of experimentation and effort by school improvement teams up and down the country. It is a problem we all want to solve, but it's so hard to work out how.

The breakthrough came when his PE teacher asked him to demonstrate rugby tackling techniques to the rest of the class. Kevin displayed not just a natural sporting talent, but also the authority of player and coach. For a few minutes he came to life in a new role. His head buried in the scrum to explain, he was literally cheek-to-cheek with his team-mates.

The adapted timetable we introduced, with extra sport and games, gave him a coaching role with younger children at which he excelled. The skills of his teacher-mentor were crucial, of course, especially when he used language which any referee would have rewarded with a red card. But these were small steps on the road to a massive victory.

When we began filming for a national PE teachers' resource on DVD, Kevin's story formed a natural chapter. The story makes an inspiring seven-minute episode capable of making grown male PE teachers go moist-eyed. Why? Because it's true. Because it really happened. A boy who had been so close to permanent exclusion was now a role-model for others.

After so many years of being regarded as the poor relation in schools, sports departments are increasingly being seen as a vital ingredient in the recipe for high standards, motivation and achievement. As I shook Kevin's hand to loud applause following the screening of his story at a recent conference, I cast my mind back to that Year 6 child I had known. He had been right about the school: I didn't own it. Far more important, I owned what happened in it. His success was proof of that. Bring on the Olympics.

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