Crispin Andrews discovers how a sports college with poor facilities keeps enthusiasm and participation rates high
Despite minimal on-site facilities, Wright Robinson Sports College in Manchester has won recognition for setting new standards in PE and sport. Last year it was one of only two organisations to be awarded a Sportsmark Gold distinction from Sport England.
Wright Robinson is an inner-city school with more than 1,600 pupils, and the facilities are pretty basic. There's no sports hall, and the infamous Manchester weather ensures that the playing fields are often unusable. A swimming pool, outside hardcourt and shale all-weather areas, as well as two 1960s gyms and a couple of tennis courts, completes the on-site facilities.
Until a new school with state-of-the-art sporting facilities opens on the site in 2005, Wright Robinson will have to make do with the facilities it has used since before sports college status was secured in 1999. Head of boys PE, Martin Howarth, says: "Facilities don't determine what we offer the children - needs do. From this, we work out the best way to use what we do have."
The college has overcome some of the site problems by the innovative use of indoor space. A few years ago, pupils were given lockers in their form rooms and the old cloakroom was cleared to make way for a dance studio.
Fixed furniture in the school halls and the dining room has been replaced by movable benches, and storage space found to allow curricular and extra-curricular activity to take place in all three areas. Similarly, a sizeable circulation area between the dining room and a main corridor is often used when the weather is bad.
But moving the furniture around is just part of the solution. Establishing partnerships with local sporting organisations and using off-site facilities have been crucial strategies in encouraging participation. From an adjoining golf course and a nearby reservoir to the new Sport City complex, purpose-built for last year's Commonwealth Games, Wright Robinson pupils have access to the highest quality venues. Recently, the school's cricket teams have had practice sessions at the Old Trafford indoor centre and their Rugby League squad trained at Salford Red's JJB stadium, while evenings were dark. Wright Robinson's Academy, offering over-16s the opportunity to combine sporting and academic or professional studies, is based partly at the Armitage Centre on University of Manchester grounds.
Martin Howarth says using facilities on different sites has not proved a barrier. "We consider all our sporting activities, whether on site or off-site, to be part of the same package," he says. "Pupils come here expecting school sporting activities to be at other venues - it has become part of our culture."
Sporting options at Wright Robinson include: aerobics, athletics, baton twirling, cricket, cross country, cycling, dance, fitness, football, golf, hockey, karate, netball, rounders, rugby league, table tennis, tennis, softball, swimming, water polo and weightlifting.
Fifteen members of general and PE staff appointed as learning co-ordinators have a responsibility to develop a particular sport across the whole school. Part of their responsibility is to ensure links are made with outside clubs and organisations in order to provide career routes for talented children.
Further strengthened by the work of the school's sport co-ordinators, Wright Robinson is thriving at the heart of the local sporting community.
None of this would be possible without a highly motivated, committed staff, united behind a common vision of a high profile for PE and sport as the driving force behind their school. This starts with headteacher Neville Beischer, a former PE specialist, who has been known to spend his Saturday mornings training one of the school's many football teams.
He says: "Sport is a marvellous vehicle for raising young people's self-esteem, self-worth and confidence in their own ability. These personal attributes, learned through sport, remained with pupils throughout their lives."
This confidence in the ability of PE and sport to make a difference to pupils and to the community as a whole motivates the PE department.
Innovative ideas such as reorganising the school canteen to enable pupils doing lunchtime activities to pick up a packed lunch have been implemented, and the key stage 3 timetable is being transformed to ease the transition from primary to secondary PE .
Sceptics might point to the fact that, as a sports college and part of the Excellence in Cities initative, Wright Robinson receives substantial funding to implement its policies. But it is their can-do attitude, looking for innovative ways to overcome traditional barriers to participation in PE and sport which has enabled this funding to be used to such startling effect. Last year, more than 75 per cent of boys and 72 per cent of girls were involved in one or more after-school sporting activities. In Year 7, the figures were even higher - 80 and 79 and respectively.
As well as a lot of competitive successes, many individuals have been selected for representative honours from district to national level. In Year 11, all students take either GCSE PE or dance as a compulsory subject.
This could never be secured by money alone.
Director of sport Nicky Cantrell is proud of the school's achievements:
"Through the hard work, dedication and enthusiasm of all those who have worked so tirelessly to develop Wright Robinson as a centre for sporting excellence and opportunity, we are able to offer such a variety of activities that every youngster can find something to become involved in."