An apparently unremarkable junior school each year walks off with more gymnastic prizes than any other in the country. Jonathan Croall discovers the secret of its success.
Standing on the edge of a northern county town, surrounded by two large estates, and housed in a modest-sized, unremark-able building, Newlaithes Junior School in Carlisle looks like hundreds of other suburban primaries.
Yet for the past 15 years or so this Cumbrian school has been helping children produce gymnastic work of the highest quality. Their remarkable record at successive British championships - where they've won countless competitions and medals - is unmatched by any primary school in the country.
The moving force behind this impressive achievement is Howard Todd, who was headteacher of the 250-pupil school from 1982 until this summer when Cumbria made him PE and primary adviser for the county. By common consent, it has been his vision and dedication that have enabled the school to become a centre of excellence for gymnastics.
"He's achieved success because he has great drive and energy, and is very single-minded and focused," says acting head Christopher Barnfield. "That energy affects the children very positively. His work also attracts adults who see that, when he sets out to do something, he gets it done."
Joan Jackman, chairman of the British Schools Gymnastic Association (BSGA), says: "Howard is very knowledgeable about his subject, and makes sure children aren't attempting things they're not prepared for. It's school gymnastics at its best. So many primary teachers have the equipment, but not the training or the confidence."
Other factors have clearly been crucial. The school spends more of its budget on sport than most. Having the head teaching a subject inevitably gives it a higher profile. And it's also easier for children to get time off school if support for attendance at championship events is in-built.
Adult help has been crucial over the years, since the gymnastic work is done almost entirely outside the normal timetable, which allows only half an hour of PE a week. A team of volunteers, including several parents and former pupils, has helped run the classes and accompanied the pupils to events all over the country.
One of the volunteers is Susan Hughes, now 20 and a qualified coach, who started doing gymnastics at Newlaithes at the age of seven. She recalls Howard Todd's way of working. "He wasn't just the headteacher, although he was tough and to the point. As children we looked up to him because he was also a friend."
A former rugby player with a particular interest in PE, Howard Todd first recognised the educational value of gymnastics while teaching in a secondary modern school, where one low-achieving boy whose parents had given up hope in him turned his whole school work around as a result of his involvement in the sport.
Then, as headteacher of Bowness Primary School on the Solway Firth, he developed the gymnastic work to a level where the children of this tiny five to 11 Cumbrian village school, with only 100 on roll, were beginning to win competitions at national level.
"I found the work challenging, because the children were working from a base of no knowledge," he remembers. "With a game like football they'd already had some experience kicking a ball, but with gymnastics they were starting from scratch. So their success made me feel my worth as a teacher."
The competitive successes continued at Newlaithes. Since 1982 both the school's boys' and girls' teams have won the national under-11 and under-13 team events several times, while the mixed team has won the under-11 sports acrobatics final six times and the floor and vault championships, started in 1988, five times.
Needless to say, these medals have only come through a great deal of hard work, on the part of adults as well as children. There are classes after school, on two evenings a week and at weekends, with the keenest children spending up to 15 hours a week on gymnastics - and more when a competition looms.
"There's a great deal of discipline involved," says Barbara Mcfarlane, a parent and qualified coach. "Some children find it fairly easy, because they have more supple bodies, especially the girls. But others have to work very hard, and find body preparation very difficult."
The school seems to have nothing special in the way of facilities. Most of the work goes on in the multi-purpose hall, with the usual wall-bars, ropes and rings, and only a larger than usual pile of floor mats to suggest anything out of the ordinary.
Indeed, space is so tight that vaulting practice has to be done in the corridor. Much, then, depends on the quality of the extra-curricular teaching and coaching. Since Howard Todd's promotion the club has been in the capable hands of four qualified coaches, while he plays a "supportive role."
To get their bodies strong and flexible, the children have to do many exercises over a long period. Only then do they start to build up rolling, jumping, twisting, turning. "When they've got those basic skills, then they can begin to be creative," Howard Todd says.
The girls' work tends towards the more balletic and expressive, and is often done to music. With the boys it's more a question of straight bodies and straight lines; they're not expected to reach the same level of dance or choreography.
The classes at the school also attract children who have moved on to secondary school.
One advantage of this set-up is that the coaches can use the older or more confident children to demonstrate skills to the rest.
The children often have to work in pairs, and so have to trust each other. Such lessons in teamwork, according to Christopher Barnfield, have an impact across the curriculum. "It rubs off in the classroom, you can see them also working well together there," he says. "And being part of a successful team gives them a sense of identity."
With the specialist PE colleges long gone, and only six hours in three years of initial primary training devoted to the subject, schools have become more dependent on individuals such as Howard Todd to develop children's abilities to such a level.
Aged 53, he himself deplores the inadequacy of the training for an activity which he believes can have a major impact on children's school lives. "My job now is to work for the benefit of all in Cumbria."