Sporting heroes get struggling pupils back on track

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
The Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust, the lead charity for this year's TES Schools Awards, draws on the skills of former athletes to improve the life chances of young people. David Matthews reports

How do you help a child who is disruptive at school, drinking heavily and taking drugs? When other options for schools and young people fail, the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust can step in to help difficult youngsters through sport.

The trust, which began its work in July 2008, was set up by double Olympic gold medal winner Dame Kelly Holmes who wanted to train ex-athletes to help improve the sporting and life chances of young people across the country. It is the lead charity for this year's TES Schools Awards.

This is where mentors such as Adam Whitehead come in. Mr Whitehead was an international swimmer for Great Britain for 10 years, winning gold at the European Championships in 1998 and at the Commonwealth Games in 2002. But when he retired in 2006, he found adapting to "normal life" tricky. "For so many years you have that stability," he says. "But when I retired it was like being completely lost."

He found direction again by working for the Youth Sport Trust as a mentor, and then joined the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust a year ago. From his own adolescence, Mr Whitehead knows that sport can turn a life around.

"I found school quite difficult," he continues. "I was pretty average at everything. I was predicted to get three GCSEs. When I discovered swimming, that really helped me focus on other aspects of my life. I sat my GCSEs a year late and got one A, seven Bs and two Cs."

Mr Whitehead now works with schools in the trust's "Making Headway" scheme, where former athletes and ex-military personnel spend 12 days working with up to 30 children selected by schools who are not on track to achieve five A*-C grade GCSEs. It is not just pupils with behaviour problems - quiet, insecure children who are drifting through school are also targeted.

The former sports star teaches children skills such as first aid and helps them to research subjects such as the Olympic Games, drugs in sport and famous stadiums. He also trains students to instruct their peers through a sport coaching session. "They realise how difficult it is for teachers to stay in charge of a class," he explains. This also helps them to project their voices and improves their body language, essential in any job.

Working with other ex-athletes - including champions from Thai boxing, BMX biking and inline-skating - Mr Whitehead mentors the children through their activities.

"One of the most rewarding things was a young lady on the Newcastle project who was involved in a lot of drinking and anti-social behaviour," he explains. "She came up to me at the end of the course and said 'this has made a real big difference for me'. We sat down and set her some goals for the next six months which involved her drinking less and taking drugs less and working towards getting some qualifications for a job."

Completing the Making Headway course wins pupils a Wider Key Skills award, which is equivalent to two GCSEs.

Ex-athletes are also sent to work with promising young sportspeople in disadvantaged areas, giving them advice on nutrition, goal setting, stretching, and other training essentials.

"I'm sure that some of the athletes who have gone through the programme are definitely going to be involved in the 2012 Olympics," Mr Whitehead says.

He adds that, if anything, he enjoys working for the trust even more than his decade of breaststroke. "The satisfaction I get from working with the types of young people I work with is far better than I got from the swimming pool."


Sir Tim Brighouse Former London schools commissioner

Malcolm Trobe Policy director, Association of School and College Leaders

Derek Bell, Head of education, The Wellcome Trust

Joan Olivier, Retired head of Lady Margaret School, west London

Jeanne Keay, Dean of School of Education, Roehampton University

Keri Facer, Professor of education, Manchester Metropolitan University, and former research director of Futurelab

Annette Montague, Schools director, Youth Sport Trust

Dame Kelly Holmes, Retired Olympic athlete

John May, Chief executive, Young Enterprise

Professor Tony Gallagher, Head of School of Education, Queens University, Belfast

Professor Ken Reid, Retired deputy vice-chancellor, Swansea Metropolitan University

Graham Donaldson, Chief inspector of education in Scotland

A member of the School Food Trust (to be announced).

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