When the game is in the bag
Outside, in near-freezing temperatures, this group is forming part of a nationwide scheme to provide a more co-ordinated approach to teaching PE in primary schools, which will hopefully equip them with the skills to follow their heroes' well-worn tracks to the podium.
The TOP Play and TOP Sport initiative is currently being piloted in 130 Hampshire schools. It covers an age range of 4 to 11 and provides teachers with the training, resource cards and equipment to teach essential skills for a range of sports.
For the very young, TOP Play focuses on fundamental movements like running, catching, throwing and kicking. The activities become more sport-specific and sophisticated in TOP Sport, with which children receive a thorough grounding in basketball, cricket, hockey, netball, rugby, tennis and table tennis.
Simon Ridd of the Southern Region Sports Council says: "Currently, children's experiences may vary dramatically. They may be taught one way by their PE teacher, then if they go to an out-of-school club, their coach will teach them a different method altogether. The idea behind TOP Play and TOP Sport is to provide anyone who teaches children physical and sporting skills with a uniform approach so that children will have these skills reinforced rather than weakened."
The TOP SportPlay scheme has an impeccable pedigree. It has been developed by the National Sport Development Centre at Loughborough University, the Sports Council, the National Coaching Foundation and the governing bodies of the individual sports involved. During the trial period there has been "a constant tweaking to make sure we get it right", says Helen Vost of the Youth Sport Trust, which is administering the scheme.
Hampshire's schools are now getting into a routine of tweaking their timetables as a brand new sports bag, containing the requisite equipment and resource cards, arrives each half-term. At Woolton Hill, it is netball's turn, which the school had played as a matter of course before. So is it not a case of preaching to the converted? For pupil Rachel Vaughan it is a huge improvement: "It's much better now. With the cards we can change what we do next. You choose what to do, so you never get bored by it."
For their PE teacher, Sue Halewood, the scheme has also brought unexpected benefits: "Last term we had table tennis and I thought, 'Oh God'. But the children loved it. This method is probably more fun and it makes them more independent."
Beached on the edge of Woolton's diminutive netball court is a huge sports bag, which looks as though it would be more at home on a plane to Atlanta. It is uncompromisingly coloured red, white and blue and bulges at the seams with all manner of balls, cones, bibs and hoops, many of which are now dispatched to all corners of the court.
The essence of the TOP Sport is effective use of space, whether this is a court, a playground, a hall, or an area of grass. The teacher divides it up into a system of grids, where several activities then run simultaneously. At the blast of a whistle, groups move on to the next task.
"I never thought these grids would work," says Sue Halewood, "but they do and they are wonderful. I can control 24 children easily at any one time."
The resource cards each group uses to determine its activity are made of tough, laminated plastic and have been specially designed to appear easily intelligible to young children. There are jolly illustrations showing how to run with high knees, for example, or how to stop a ball if you're in a wheelchair.
At Woolton Hill there were groups practising shooting, playing tag, passing between pairs or in larger groups. Everyone was doing something. No one was left out.
One of the scheme's greatest strengths is its adaptability. This is particularly important for schools with limited resources, or for mixed ability groups or children with special needs. Pitches don't have to be a specified length and they can be made shorter if need be. Children can stand closer to a target if that helps. Lighter balls, or bigger bats are far easier to play with for children who have difficulty tracking, retrieving or throwing. As TOP Sport encourages the children themselves to determine how the activities proceed, it is up to them to suggest adaptations which suit everyone.
David Gent, head of Woolton Hill, says: "My belief is in sport for all at whatever level. Some children are never going to play in a team but at least with this they have an opportunity to have a go."
Next year, the Youth Sport Trust anticipates that the 500 pilot sites will have increased to 4,000 (2,000 each using TOP Sport and TOP Play). It hopes the numbers will then double for each category in the succeeding years, and that in future not only will schools all over the country be training children in this way, but so will local authorities, youth services, scouts, Brownies and any organisation which has responsibility for children's sporting development.
Having mastered rugby, table tennis and netball, Woolton Hill is now looking forward to a summer of tennis and cricket, which the girls are particularly excited by. Any regrets? Hockey does not appear on the timetable till next year, by which time they will all be at senior school o Further details from The Youth Sport Trust, Rutland Building, Loughborough University, Loughborough, Leicestershire LE11 3TU. Tel: 01509 228293