'Why I'm opening my school doors over summer'

Children need safe spaces to exercise over the summer. But not all have access to them. That's why this Birmingham headteacher is keeping her school open

Azita Zohhadi

boy, playing outdoors

At Nelson Mandela Primary School, we pride ourselves on delivering an enriching and varied curriculum, giving every child an opportunity to find their talent and flourish in an inclusive and stimulating environment. 

But I often wonder how much of this is in vain, if those same children come back in September having regressed after a summer of disconnection, disengagement and inactivity – through no fault of their own.

Physical-activity levels of children and young people are low, with just 17.5 per cent of children achieving the chief medical officer’s recommended guidelines of 60 minutes a day of physical activity (according to Sport England). 

And research by health body ukactive shows that children’s fitness levels are negatively affected over the summer holidays, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds losing up to 80 per cent of their cardiovascular fitness levels. 

Belonging to the community

Nelson Mandela Primary is a community school that belongs to the community, and we are very proud of that. We understand that our role isn’t just to drive academic outcomes – we are here to look at and develop the whole child. And their health is a huge part of this.

We absolutely need to recognise that this is bigger than a curriculum, more important than academic outcomes, and further-reaching than term-time. We exist as part of a multi-dimensional and ever-changing network of children, families, teachers, community services, and all of the social politics, needs and behaviours that come with this. 

And, many children leaving primary school overweight or obese, it is time to promote and foster the health of the children and young people in our communities. 

Safe spaces

Our school community has challenges: lack of money, lack of garden space for play at home, a lack of confidence to join community groups, or a perception that public spaces like parks are unsafe. These become very real barriers.

Raising physical activity levels and supporting our children’s health requires more than a few novel interventions, and certainly won’t change if we continue to detach school life from home and community life – children’s health needs do not stop at the end-of-day bell or the last day of term. 

This is why we are opening our gates this summer. Schools are largely seen as safe spaces by parents and children. As a headteacher, I will always look for opportunities to maximise the use of my school facility both in and outside of term time. 

Using funding from the Department for Education summer-holiday activity fund, we will be working with local community providers to offer engaging, fun, safe and inclusive activities during the holidays, in order to meet the needs of our school community.

Equal opportunity

Opening up our school during the summer holidays goes one step towards giving our children an equal opportunity to succeed. It is a challenging time to be young and underprivileged in the UK – opening up our school and connecting to the local community is about providing opportunities, and making children proud of where they are from. 

We cannot do this without funding – although we may still not have the capacity to cater for all of the children and families that need support this summer. There needs to be a long-term plan and commitment by the government, to enable school communities to come together and create change.

As educators, we are used to working through challenges. This is another challenge that we can work through with our local school community. We believe that, when you have more than you need, you should build a bigger table, not a higher wall.

Azita Zohhadi is headteacher at Nelson Mandela Primary School, in Birmingham

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