Sporty types raise the academic bar

15th June 2007 at 01:00
Children who participate in lots of physical activities are up to eight times more likely to excel at exams, research shows

PUPILS WHO take regular exercise are up to eight times more likely to achieve good GCSE results than their less sporty peers, research has revealed.

Active 16-year-olds outperform classmates who do not take exercise in English, maths and science tests, according to the early findings of a 10-year study.

Academics have followed the progress of more than 3,500 pupils at Wright Robinson sports college in Manchester. Of the most active girls, defined as those who attended at least three extra-curricular sports clubs a week, 43 per cent achieved an A* to C grade in GCSE maths. Of the least active, who did not attend any sports clubs, only 5 per cent achieved those grades. For boys, the same comparison resulted in 33 per cent achieving an A* to C in maths compared to 5 per cent.

In English, 63 per cent of the most active girls got a good GCSE grade compared to 15 per cent of the least active. For boys, the figures were 26 per cent compared to 16 per cent.

And in double science, the comparison was 81 per cent to 29 per cent for girls and 50 per cent to 36 per cent for boys.

The results, released for the first time, are from exams taken in 2003, after tracking pupils from Year 7 to Year 11.

Results from subsequent years, due to be published next year, follow the same pattern, said Dr Gillian Burgess, a senior research fellow at the Manchester Institute of Sport and Physical Activity, which is part of Manchester Metropolitan University.

"There are some massive differences in exam results," she said. "I am not saying it is solely down to those pupils being physically active, but it's a contributing factor. Higher physical self-worth and self-esteem leads to higher confidence. This makes pupils more likely to succeed physically and academically."

Dr Burgess's study found that the focus on team and competitive sports in schools turns off large numbers. When pupils, particularly girls, are given a chance to do exercise such as aerobics, trampolining and dance, they are more likely to participate, she said.

The PE national curriculum for Years 7 to 9 is being changed next year to include more flexibility and choice for pupils.

Professor Margaret Talbot, the chief executive of the Association for Physical Education, said: "There needs to be a broad curriculum. It is not that team sports are wrong; they are right for many pupils, but not all.

"Children involved in sport tend to have the other factors that contribute to academic success. They tend to be from more middle class backgrounds and stay in school longer. But the evidence is that good quality sport provision means children overall do better."

A spokesman for the Youth Sport Trust, the organisation representing specialist sports colleges, said: "In 2005 and 2006 our rate of improvement for pupils obtaining five or more GCSE grades at A*-C has been higher compared to all other specialist schools."


Wright Robinson sports college at Gorton, in east Manchester, commissioned research in 1998 into the impact of sport in the school. It has used the results to change its PE curriculum to encourage more pupils to take exercise.

Nicky Cantrell, the deputy headteacher, said: "We wanted quality data to help us relate to what young people want. We know from this research that the more active they are, the better they achieve. It is not the only factor but it is having an impact."

The school, where more than 50 per cent of the pupils receive free meals, has introduced rock climbing, canoeing, street dance and trampolining, among other sports. It has also set up intervention teams to target pupils who take no exercise. In one, pupils applied for a programme of exercise and diet and nutrition advice. More than 60 pupils applied for the 25 places available.

At Monkseaton community high school in Whitley Bay, North Tyneside, footballers have enjoyed impressive success since playing in the school team was linked to academic achievement. Players are not allowed to take part in the football academy, which trains for at least 21 hours a week, unless they have good attendance and hit academic targets.

Paul Kelley, the headteacher, said: "We are making sure that sport does not interfere with their life chances, but enhances them. It has resulted in higher academic performance for these pupils in terms of value added development."

This year seven players in the sixth form have won $1 million in football scholarships to study degree courses at American universities.

Mr Kelley said he was now extending the scheme to rugby. Photograph: Howard Barlow

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