4th November 2005 at 00:00
Schools don't need a playing field to win sporting awards. Chris Fautley finds one on the Isle of Wight where enthusiasm and commitment go a very long way

"The one thing that has been surprising is that we have done exceptionally well at cricket," reflects Stuart Reeves, head of PE at Nodehill Middle School, in Newport, Isle of Wight. Surprising, since Nodehill lacks a vital piece of cricket kit: a playing field. "It would be wrong to use the lack of a field as an excuse not to provide opportunities," Stuart continues - an ethos so successful that Nodehill won its third Sportsmark award this year.

Although they have access to another school's field, travel is time-consuming. Accordingly, full use is made of the playground to which, Stuart explains, sporting practice is often quite suited - cricket, for example.

Success has also been won by adapting to sports that can be better performed on-site, indoor athletics being a particular strength. The school also has strong contacts with outside organisations, including athletics, sailing, football and netball clubs. For example, through its work with the Isle of Wight Athletics Club, Nodehill students have competed against other schools which use facilities that Nodehill cannot possibly match. This has highlighted talented students who have progressed to represent the Island at county and national level.

Sport is afforded a high priority at Nodehill, with Years 7 and 8 allocated three 50-minute lessons each week (the Sportsmark minimum weekly requirement is 100 minutes). In Year 8, 69 per cent of boys and 49 per cent of girls regularly participate in extracurricular sport, comfortably exceeding the 30 per cent Sportsmark criterion.

As a former PE teacher, sport is one of headteacher David Morris's passions; he has never compromised on the time allocated to it. He agrees the school excels through the facilities it doesn't have. "When they get to the cricket finals at Lord's; when 11 of them get to the national finals for athletics, we do chuckle and say, 'There you are. We achieved that without a playing field,'" he says. "I think I've got an absolutely cracking PE team," he continues, in acknowledgement of the role it has played in the school's Sportsmark success: you can buy equipment, but not enthusiasm and commitment.

One of Nodehill's greatest achievements is its Morning Club for children who, although not dyspraxic, have characteristics of the condition. The club, usually six students of all ages, is run by a team led by teaching assistant Sarah Brodie. It meets each morning for 20 minutes before school.

Students enrol for half a term, and staff identify areas on which they need to work, such as balance, or full body co-ordination.

They are then set achievable activities: those with balance difficulties will try to balance on one leg; that accomplished, they try balancing on a cushion; then walking along a beam. "We very gradually increase the difficulty," Sarah says.

She has designed several exercises herself, but also uses material from Brain Gym. The benefits, including better self-esteem and confidence-building, have in turn led to students expressing themselves more. The most remarkable result, however, is academic improvement, particularly writing. Sarah says that, to a degree, the Brain Gym results are down to co-ordination. "But you look at them and think, 'How does that work?' I don't know why it works, but it does." She adds that by undertaking activities, "successful pathways" are strengthened in the brain to be used in the future. "To be able to co-ordinate your hand to write, you've got to get the right messages to your hand," she explains.

However, the Morning Club is not sold as a cure for characteristics of dyspraxia. "We usually say it will help writing and reading," says Sarah, adding that the children enjoy it. After all, if you cannot write, the last thing you want to do is practise handwriting.

David Morris was initially sceptical of the concept. Scepticism turned to surprise when Sarah showed him the handwriting results at the end of the initial course. "The difference was astonishing," says David. "I thought, 'Quirky. Let's do another six weeks with a different lot of students'."

The good results continued. "Some were astounding, so much so that I said, 'You're having me on'," he recollects. By now, parents were reporting improvements in students' work attitude and general performance. "By doing this sort of activity, it's begging questions about teaching styles and learning styles that perhaps we have been ignoring," David enthuses. "I think we have hit on something that has enormous potential."

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