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We're game to get fit

Fringe sports such as tae kwon do, ballroom dancing and orienteering are driving up pupil participation in sport

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Pupils at the Whitminster Centre in Stroud are busy playing golf, tennis, football and athletics, all without ever leaving the classroom. Instead, they are leaping about with Nintendo Wii systems and on Play- Station dance mats.

It may not be everyone's idea of exercise, but for these 14 to 16-year-old pupils - most of whom have been excluded from mainstream schools for behavioural issues - it exceeds expectations.

"We work with a number of young people who have little or no interest in taking part in physical activity," says Paul Barns, PE specialist at the centre, which is part of the Cotswold and Stroud Pupil Referral Service. Today, more than 90 per cent of the centre's pupils take two hours a week of high quality physical activity during school hours.

"They may not be running around, but in some ways the games are more intense because they require concentrated muscle exercise," says Mr Barns. "It's not a substitute to PE - we put on a wide programme of sports - but it is a good starting point."

He is particularly proud of one overweight boy who, having refused to physically exert himself, now plays a boxing game on the Wii for 20 minutes a day. His fitness, stamina and confidence have improved dramatically.

Girls have also progressed from the dance mats to actual dance lessons, while others are inspired by the games to try their hand at tae kwon do and basketball.

It is not just special schools that are offering more than football, hockey and netball. The average number of sports provided by schools during 2007-08 was 17.5, three more than in 2003-04. The rise has been driven by increased access to so-called fringe sports, according to the 2008 School Sports Survey.

Multi-skill clubs, which include work on co-ordination, and body awareness, have almost trebled in four years. Orienteering, canoeing and cycling have also risen, while fencing, baseball and handball will be on future national sports provision lists.

"In the past five to six years, we've seen a dramatic transformation in school sport," says Ali Oliver, sport director at the Youth Sport Trust. "Traditional sports are not dying out, but schools are diversifying what they offer."

Football, dance, gymnastics, athletics and cricket are still offered by the majority of schools but their popularity has not been at the expense of less mainstream sports. Instead, the rise of alternative sports recognises differing needs and preferences. Girls in particular can be put off by the rules and regulations implicit in many mainstream competitive sports.

Self-conscious about their bodies or deterred by unpleasant changing rooms and misconceptions about femininity, only a quarter of girls believe it is "cool" to play sport or to be good at it, says the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation.

Once they are turned off sport at school, "it's virtually impossible to get them active later in life," warns Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the foundation. However, give them choice of provision and they may find something they thrive at. Some girls are more drawn to activities such as cheerleading, power walking and yoga, especially if it involves fashionable kit.

Judo is attracting girls at Field Court Junior School in Quedgeley, Gloucester. "Participants don't have to be skilled with a ball to join in," says Kelly Armstrong, headteacher. "As a result, we're seeing a completely different set of children taking part. It's very popular with girls and it's been particularly good for pupils with special needs, such as autism, because the routine and discipline suits them."

As well as giving the pupils a good cardiovascular workout, judo enhances values of mutual respect, discipline and self-control, Mrs Armstrong says. "It's been a creative way of broadening the appeal of physical activity beyond traditional team sports."

Not all schools will be confident about offering different sports, let alone have capacity or resources for them. The Government has earmarked pound;2.4 billion for school sport between 2003 and 2012, and schools can access grants and share teachers with other schools or sports clubs, but this often requires them to be creative with the resources they already have.

One of the ways they can widen access is by trying modified formats of traditional sports. The availability of rugby leapt by 21 per cent in 2006-07 when tag rugby (a unisex, non-contact form of the sport) was introduced.

High five netball is another twist on a conventional sport. Consisting of five players instead of seven, participants rotate positions after every goal. The lack of zones and lower nets makes it appealing to primary children of both sexes, although it is becoming increasingly popular in secondary schools, too.

"Newer formats of sports are often more recreational and social than their traditional counterparts," says Ms Oliver. "Because they're less competitive, they appeal to those who do not necessarily consider themselves as sporty."

Roughly a quarter of a typical school's cohort will be keen on sport, says Ms Oliver. Among them, there may be a handful of pupils who represent the school in first teams.

However, schools need to reach out beyond the usual suspects. "About half of the school's cohort will consist of partly-engaged pupils, whose enthusiasm may lag when they fail to make even the second team," she says. Even harder to reach are the significant minority of pupils who are totally disengaged from sport.

Small changes make a big difference. Swapping an hour slot after school with a half-hour session at a breakfast or lunchtime club may attract less sporty children. Links with a gym may attract others, as may the expertise at a sports college (made possible by school sport partnerships). Something for everyone is a good aim. "Very obese pupils are unlikely to relish running in a cross country race," says Ms Oliver. "Instead, there should be a variety of sports on offer that involve less movement, such as table tennis, swimming or access to fitness suites. In some sports, such as rugby or throwing events, being bigger is better."

Park High specialist sports college in Birkenhead, Wirral, has used its specialism to raise the aspirations, self-esteem and life chances of its pupils and the local community. Regular out-of-school family nights see parents and children trampolining, trying boxercise, climbing and badminton, to name a few. "By engaging with parents, we've changed people's perception of the school and raised confidence in the process," says Lilian Lanceley, the school's head of community sport. "People can be distrustful of any sport that is too structured. More fluid, alternative sports often work better."

At Park High, sport is compulsory for all key stage 3 pupils. "Not everyone will be a David Beckham, but we expect everyone to be involved," Ms Lanceley says. "Some will be more like Alex Ferguson, helping with the coaching or the organising, but all pupils should be able to access and enjoy something."

Disability should not be a barrier. Linden Lodge School in Wimbledon, south west London, provides education for 3 to 19-year-olds with visual impairment and offers athletics, blind cricket and goalball (designed for the blind), as well as off-site rock climbing, horseriding and other outdoor pursuits.

The pupils also go to a weekly gym session at Wandsworth Prison. Teachers and inmates help the pupils warm up, explain what muscles will be involved (body awareness is important for people with visual impairments), and how to use the equipment. Pupils and blindfolded inmates play five-a-side football using an audible ball. It is a win-win situation for pupils and inmates, says Roger Legate, the headteacher. "There have been huge improvements in the children's gymnastic abilities, as well as their self- confidence, self-esteem and social skills," he says. "It also builds towards the rehabilitation of inmates by helping them develop new skills and work towards formal qualifications. Everyone loves it."

Tapping into pupil enjoyment or demand raises participation. However, schools may not be able to meet every request. Parkour (or free running, which often involves overcoming obstacles in the environment) may be popular, but it lacks a nationally accredited body. Without one, schools may struggle to access formalised coaching, let alone insurance. Other crazes, such as ballroom dancing, are easier to cater for. The Essentially Dance scheme, which has been piloted in 26 schools, trains pupils and teachers how to cha-cha-cha and quickstep their way across the dance floor. Participants say it has improved behaviour and social skills, as well as getting disaffected pupils more involved in school.

"Schools are being so much more imaginative," says Ms Oliver.

"They're bringing in external experts, using grants to secure part-time teachers and sharing skills with coaches and clubs. We're riding a tide of change."

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