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Winning combination

Nicholas Pyke looks at a programme that's bringing together top athletes in Birmingham schools

It may have an ecclesiastical ring to its name, but Bishop Challoner School has a fearsome reputation for martial arts. The school in Kings Heath, Birmingham, routinely emerges at the head of the National Schools Judo Championship.

Its sporting prowess extends beyond the gym to the sports hall and playing field, where its basketball and rugby teams - both coached by professionals - are happy to take on all comers. Bishop Challoner students even play a mean game of Gaelic football and have been known to beat top Irish schools on their own turf. The school has Britain's under-18 judo champion, and a number of its footballers, basketball and rugby players represent their country. To say it is good at sport doesn't do it justice.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Bishop Challoner - a Roman Catholic comprehensive - became a sports academy under the Government's specialist schools initiative. Already outstanding at judo, it has now set up a rugby academy with the first division Moseley club, down the road, and a basketball academy with the Birmingham Bullets. However, the latest stage of its development as a sporting institution has taken it into unfamiliar and even experimental territory - the world of disability sports and games.

The past five years have seen remarkable breakthroughs for disabled athletes, particularly top performers such as wheelchair racer Tanni Grey-Thompson OBE. At an everyday level, however, there is still little awareness of disabled children as potential sportsmen and women.

Specialised facilities are expensive and the extra help and supervision that disabled students need to practice and compete is hard to come by.

Led by Matt Morgan - a PE teacher and head of community work - Bishop Challoner School hopes to change that. With pound;10,000 backing from the Barclays New Futures education fund, the school has started planning a disability sports forum which will bring together able and non-able-bodied students from across the city.

Once a week Matt Morgan drives a minibus of sixth-formers out of the school gates at Kings Heath - a busy suburban district - and makes his way to the edge of Erdington, on the other side of the city and Wilson Stuart Special School.

The goal of the sports forum is to create a Youth Leadership Award based on expertise in running and coaching such specialist games as bocca ball, paddleboard, table cricket and wheelchair hockey. This in turn should act as a framework to help other schools get involved. But the Bishop Challoner students are also there to help run the busy after-school sports club at Wilson Stuart which on a good night can have 50 disabled pupils from all over Birmingham.

Many of the students are in wheelchairs, but they are not completely overawed by Bishop Challoner's sporting credentials, having a strong competitive record of their own.

Wilson Stuart - an all-age school specialising in pupils with physical impairments - has eight individual athletics champions. It is the top school in Britain for table cricket and "zone hockey" - a modified form of wheelchair hockey that allows powered and manual chairs to participate in the same game. Zone hockey was invented at the school, which also has a strong swimming team and whose students have even tried fencing and shooting.

Some disability sports - such as tennis, snooker, bowls and basketball - sound familiar and, with modifications, follow similar rules. But there are plenty more disability sports that are completely new to the uninitiated.

"Bocca ball" (pronounced "bocha") is an Italian variant of petanque or bowls, which uses coloured, weighted balls. They can be thrown from a wheelchair or, if the disability is more severe, they can be rolled towards floor targets down lengths of guttering.

Six-a-side table cricket - another strong game at Wilson Stuart School - takes place on a table-tennis surface. The aim is to avoid the fielders, manouevered by opposition players gathered around the pitch. The game, which is backed by the English Cricket Board, has gained national recognition. Paddleboards are like large, four-wheeled skateboards that allow disabled players to take part in team games free from cumbersome wheelchairs.

"People think disability sports is just about taking part," says Simon Harris, head of PE at Wilson Stuart. "But here they're pushed very, very hard in their PE sessions."

The after-school club was founded by classroom support teacher Paul Caldicott. "We found with the school we were doing really well with sport.

It was something that they all wanted to do," he says. "We then found we had a lot of children who had reached national level, becoming champions in their sport, and we felt that we needed to develop coaching skills."

One of the first things he did was get former pupil Paul Hunt, who is now a top wheelchair athlete, to give some professional help. He works as a coach for Sport Birmingham - a regional arm of Sport England - and is currently training for the London Marathon. "He gives the younger children something to look up to," says Paul Caldicott. "Having Matt and Bishop Challoner here is another major bonus. If you go to Lords and watch the National Table Cricket Championships you will watch our children go up against able-bodied kids. The sporting side of children's development can give them another career."

The Barclays New Futures fund is run in collaboration with Community Service Volunteers, which is monitoring the two-year initiative at Bishop Challoner. Since the New Futures fund started 1995 it has helped 1,300 school and more than 100,000 young people becoming actively involved in their communities.

Some of the Bishop Challoner sixth-formers helping at Wilson Stuart are using the experience as part their involvement in The Duke of Edinburgh's Award and it has an obvious relevance for citizenship. However, Matt Morgan says the main benefit is the fresh perspective it's giving them on sports leadership. "It's encouraging them to feel they can contribute to the world and society in a fresh way. It's challenging them - opening their eyes to all sorts of ways of doing things. "You have to be incredibly flexible and adaptable to work in disabled sports. It's not just turning up with a whistle to referee. It's also of fundamental importance that young people with disabilities from the partner schools have an equal say in the process."

Paul Caldicott says the students are making good progress with Wilson Stuart's pupils. "They're really good. We try and get them to coach from a special needs point of view. They need to understand that the students are like everyone else. The important thing is to look at their abilities, not their disabilities."

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