Mentors give students sporting inspiration

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The Sky Sports Living for Sport programme offers free access to athlete mentors to help pupils use sport to improve their lives. We hear some inspiring stories from its recent annual awards.

Alex Danson, Great Britain hockey star, Sky Sports Living for Sport Athlete Mentor

As a professional athlete who first found sport during my school days I have an unerring belief in the power of PE to change the lives of young people. This was brought home to me at the Sky Sports Living for Sport Awards recently when the Student of the Year, Teacher of the Year, and Project of the Year were announced and the stories behind the winners revealed.

For those who don’t know, Sky Sports Living for Sport is a free secondary school initiative, delivered in partnership with national charity the Youth Sport Trust, that sends athlete mentors into schools to help pupils harness the power of sport to improve their lives.

I’m very proud to be an athlete mentor for the initiative – 2014/15 will be my seventh year – and the awards this year were particularly special for me because the Student of the Year was Bethan Gill of Samuel Cody Specialist Sports College in Farnborough, someone I have helped mentor for five years.

Bethan’s story is an amazing one. When I first met her she was a shy, quiet and withdrawn person in the classroom and had been a selective mute at primary school, meaning extreme anxiety led to her being unable to speak in specific situations or to specific people. This had had an impact on her academic progress, even though she was such a talented girl.

To see the way she has progressed since then, benefiting from a series of projects designed to raise her confidence, is amazing. These days she captains her district athletics team, coaches children at trampolining, has been taking a GCSE in PE, and has plans to join the Military Preparation College at Farnborough to take a BTEC Level 1 in Sport and Active Leisure. It is a transformation that is testament to Bethan, to her teachers and to way schools are learning to use sport and PE to change the lives of difficult-to-reach students.

Below, three teachers who all inspired winning entries on awards night share their experiences and explain how to use PE to achieve results off the field.

Sport across the curriculum

Dean Watson, PE Teacher, Rastrick High School, West Yorkshire (Award: Sport Project of the Year)

I have always believed sport is a unique tool that can be used to motivate and engage students across the whole school. It can empower students to develop vital life-skills such as determination, resilience, independence, teamwork and confidence. Moreover it provides students with the tools to attempt challenges across school and in life – and to persevere until they succeed. 

There are a plethora of opportunities through sport to develop other areas of the curriculum subconsciously. Simple but effective tools for doing this include asking students to describe a partner’s technique and then urging them to improve their description, as if they were a sports commentator. Or getting students to work out average baskets per game in a basketball tournament, for instance.

Experience has shown me that those who are disengaged in more “academic” subjects often thrive in sport, where they can excel without fear of failure, or without appearing less clever than their peers.

Involvement in PE can embolden students into attempting rather than avoiding tasks in future. This environment is very powerful in making hard-to-reach students feel comfortable in lessons and can change their attitudes towards school life.

For schools wanting to set up a project I have two main tips to share. The first is to get members of staff from outside the PE department involved so students see these staff as “normal” human beings and can develop relationships. 

Second, I would urge teachers to create a team identity among students, encouraging them to look out for each other and support each other around school. It can create a legacy which lasts way beyond the timescale of a project.

Multiple projects

Anthony Creaser, PE Teacher, Samuel Cody Specialist Sports College,  Farnborough (Award: Student Bethan Gill won Student of the Year)

At Samuel Cody Specialist Sports College we work hard to ensure students become involved in sporting activities and understand the benefits of taking part in regular exercise. 

As we are a moderate learning difficulties SEN school we only have around 130 students on roll. This allows a lot of students to become involved in projects where certain groups are targeted specifically.

Programmes have been run to assist with building confidence or social skills, to help improve attendance, to aid gifted and talented students and to provide leadership skills for our older students. 

Each project relies on the variety of sports and activities that can be participated in at Samuel Cody. I believe the diversity of these sports engages pupils fully and maintains their attention throughout the period of time they are involved. We run projects every term and throughout the year, most concentrating on development, culminating in a celebration in our end-of-term assemblies.

There is strong evidence that many students benefit long-term from participating in multiple projects throughout their time in school.

Bethan, for instance, participated in at least one project per year during her time at Samuel Cody. This allowed her to build on the skills she learnt during each project and led to her becoming a sport leader. Importantly, everything that Bethan learnt she has then passed on to the pupils she has assisted – something we always encourage.

Engaging reluctant students

Stacey Howard, Specialist teacher (supporting SEND children in mainstream PE), Holy Family School, Yorkshire. (Award: Teacher of the Year)

I’m not quite sure where I get my sporting genes from. My mum still talks about how much she hated PE at school and dad often tells tales of taking short cuts during cross country and going for a cup of tea to keep warm instead. Even now there is still a misconception around secondary school PE – horror stories of having to take showers and being “forced” to play hockey in the snow in just shorts and a t-shirt!

This is why when I was asked to support the PE department for two days a week at my local high school I was determined to be a myth-buster and focus my energy on students who, for whatever reasons, felt uncomfortable about PE.

I chose to run a programme based around a lunchtime club in which students, normally chosen from the Learning Support Unit and who have found it difficult to settle into high school life, learn life-skills and try out new sports.

Using the programme, students quickly become part of a family, learning to support each other, look after each other and become mentors in their own right.

A big tip is to give students a voice. We allowed them to decide themselves each week what sports or topics to concentrate on, and this noticeably increased engagement levels.

Recently six students, who had previously shown no interest in PE and had never enjoyed sport, were engaged by taking a qualification in officiating at boccia, a Paralympic version of bowls. Another group set up a media team and are now confident enough to interview the athlete mentors who visit the school and post the films on YouTube.

It shows that PE has the ability to reach pupils previously disinterested in sport – and to inspire projects that have the potential not only to help individuals but to reverberate throughout the whole school.SecEd

Further information
Sky Sports Living for Sport: https://livingforsport.skysports.com/

CAPTION: Sporting stories: (from top) Hockey star and athlete mentor Alex Danson; Rastrick High School’s Project of the Year Group with David Beckham and Jessica Ennis-Hill at the Sky Sports Living for Sport Awards; Student of the Year Bethan Gill; Teacher of the Year Stacey Howard


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