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‘Sport doesn’t have to stop if you’re doing GCSEs’: How Clapton Girls’ Academy use PE to develop skills for life

Anna Feltham, the headteacher at Clapton Girls’ Academy in Hackney, knew that something significant was stirring when she kept hearing music blaring from the school gym and the outside tennis courts from as early as 7.30am even on a cold and dark winter’s morning.

Groups of girls had arrived to take advantage of the basketball and tennis coaching that has been embedded in the school by the London-based charity Greenhouse Sports for the last eight years and helped inspire some quite extraordinary success.

The Under-16s basketball team were recently crowned national champions and some of the girls have flourished to the point where a career in their chosen sport is now a realistic option. And yet, at a time when the national inactivity of girls has reached crisis point, it is the deeper life-changing messages that are most striking. “They have developed skills in their sport which are also skills for life,” says Feltham, who has been working at Clapton for 10 years.

“For some, we have seen really significant changes in behaviour. That might be interacting with others, following instructions, listening, accepting feedback, understanding personal space, resilience, finding limits, overcoming challenges or leadership skills but it all translates back to the classroom.

“We have significant concerns nationally about the issues of mental health and wellbeing in young people and sport plays a huge role in helping them. It is a fantastic outlet.” The Year Eight pupils report being “more awake”, gaining “an energy boost” and then an “amazing feeling” once they have completed a pre-school session. “It’s fun, a way to express myself and keeps me healthy,” says 13-year-old Reanna Bryan.

Some of the tennis sessions, which can also run after school, during PE and at break times, are taken by students Lilly Atkinson and Jodine Clarke, who have come through the programme and are now in Year 12 and combining coaching and playing with their studies. Tennis, they say, has given them friendships across age-groups in both the school and local community. It was also an important stress release when they were taking their GCSE exams.

The Under-16s basketball team were recently crowned national champions

The Under-16s basketball team were recently crowned national champions Credit: PAUL GROVER

That is something the basketball coach, Fe Duhaney-Keown, wants to emphasise at this especially pressurised exam period. “Sport doesn’t have to stop if your children are doing GCSEs,” she says. “Two hours training a week will benefit them. You can see they enjoy it and definitely gain.”

Wider benefits are clearly outlined in a new Pro Bono Economics report, which was based on a study by Loughborough University of 700 participating pupils in the Greenhouse scheme at four inner-city London schools. Engagement with the project accounted for an average annual attendance increase of eight days. It also more than doubled daily exercise and there were improvements by up to a third of a grade in English and 40% of a grade in Maths.

Despite this, and other similar evidence in the private sector, the wider national backdrop is of PE hours in state schools being cut amid the pressures on the core tested subjects of English, maths and science. “It can only be a positive move to make more time for sports in schools through extra-curricular activity and increased provision of PE lessons,” says John Herriman, the chief executive of Greenhouse Sports. “If we really care about our kids, then we have to fix this problem now, before it’s too late.”

Staff from across subjects at Clapton are also encouraged to join in. “We have yoga, circuit training and boxing,” says Feltham. “The staff and pupils feed off each other.” And what has been the key to involving those girls who might disengage from sport? “Being flexible,” says Feltham. “Listening to feedback and recognising what they are interested in. We use music in PE lessons, we have converted a classroom and put in gym equipment. We work with the students and make sure they understand why sport is important for their wellbeing.”

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