More than 100 Lottery-funded sports schools in England will be functioning within three years. Scotland has looked on sceptically so far but David Henderson went to check out a model in Newcastle that may find favour
There are as many varieties of sports college emerging as there are sports. At Benfield School in Newcastle, a standard city comprehensive where 40 per cent of kids are on free meals, sport means cash and innovation for all. The aim is raised attainment and there are many ways to hit the target.
The Benfield formula spreads the goodies, pound;120,000 extra revenue spending per year across the school, bringing smiles all round.
The home economics department has brought in a dietician to highlight healthy eating in sport, devising new recipes for carbo-loading pasta. Science labs are relishing new equipment and the maths department has plans to run an orienteering club to teach anything from angles to mapping in a very practical way.
Elsewhere, the learning support department is enjoying a new computer suite and there is bonus cash for the accelerated learning programme.
Jon Chamberlain, assistant head and director of physical education, community recreation and sport, admits: "The money makes a huge difference and you have a responsibility to use it globally. To drop that on a physical education department would isolate it from the rest of the school, so we've tried to spread the cash."
Raising standards of literacy and numeracy in the 820-pupil secondary in a disadvantaged area is as fundamental as raising high jump records. "We're trying to make a difference to a range of areas. There's maybe a perception that we're an elite sports academy but we're certainly not that," Mr Chamberlain adds.
He splits his time 50-50 between core PE and promoting the enterprise. A separate head of PE runs the department.
Eighteen months on, the sports college, whose motto is "Pride and Performance", is gradually developing its PE and sports agenda by employing an extra physical education teacher, upgrading a post to sports development officer and enlisting a sports technician. All PE teachers take an afternoon a week in one of the six feeder primaries, working with pupils and teachers. Primaries are also encouraged to use the secondary's facilities and join sports festivals.
Benfield's definition of a sports college has led to the introduction of A-level PE (eight students involved), three 50-minute periods of PE for all pupils in years 7 and 8 (S1 and S2), and the rewriting of all programmes of study. All other pupils enjoy two periods of PE. Sports leader awards for senior pupils, better use of the adjoining gymnastics tent and the deployment of external coaches are among other dimensions, not vastly different from ordinary schools with good programms.
A residential week for second-year pupils and two sports development days for everyone provide other attractive aspects.
The four key sports at Benfield are football, gymnastics, badminton and swimming, but Mr Chamberlain acknowledges they could organise football after school and virtually everyone would turn up, such is the popularity of the game in the north-east. The college aim is to broaden the options.
From a low participation base, as many as 70 per cent of younger age groups are now involved in activities, dropping to 40 per cent of senior pupils. There is even badminton before school on a Friday. Half the 52 staff are involved voluntarily in one way or another.
Outside school hours, more and more staff are offering extra sports, while coaching courses have been introduced in swimming, gymnastics and basketball with the help of outside experts. A key function of any sports college is to act as a magnet for sports development within the area, liaising with other schools and clubs. Benfield will emerge as a base for a number of clubs, including under-18s basketball.
Mr Chamberlain explains: "We want sport going on from eight in the morning till 10 at night, involving everyone at all levels of ability. This is a relatively deprived area we serve and a lot of youngsters would find that the only thing they can get involved in is sport."
It helps that the school is open all year and sits in acres of green playing fields, a key reason for its selection. Current facilities are bog-standard and mostly 30 years old, except for the all-weather, floodlit, full-size football surface. That doubles as Newcastle United's football academy out of school hours and is the reason why the multi-millionaires of St James's Park invested pound;200,000 in the Benfield dream. Manchester United has done something similar on its own patch.
All sports colleges are forced to find sponsorship under an agreement between the Youth Sport Trust and the Department for Education and Employment. The first colleges, such as Benfield, had to find a minimum of pound;100,000 before they secured their revenue bounty. New rules, however, have reduced the sum to pound;50,000.
Capital investment is fundamental to all schemes and Benfield is expected to win approval from the Lottery for a pound;3.2 million sports hall and national high-performance gymnastics centre that will elevate its appeal throughout the north-east. Badminton and tennis are likely to take off.
Headteacher Mike Booth, who has been in post for four years, believes they are on target. "The dream would be for all youngsters to be involved in some form of physical activity as a hobby or extra-curricular activity and for that to influence their lifestyles in terms of fitness, self-discipline and self-esteem," he explained.