‘Ididn’t get a youknowwhat in the end, and nor did anyone I knew,” the protagonist Mike Engleby says of not getting a first-class degree in Sebastian Faulks’s
“The very few they gave seemed to go to people no one had heard of.”
The words encapsulate a simple idea. To excel in class, students need to shun extra-curricular activities. After all, every hour on the sports pitch is one hour fewer reading books. And so, for all bar the infinitesimal number of us who become elite athletes, time spent on the pitch could be put to better use.
There is just one snag with this notion: it collapses when confronted by the evidence. More time spent doing exercise does not inhibit a child’s academic performance; it improves it. Rather than a frivolous distraction, sport can help children realise their educational potential.
A comprehensive study followed English children born in 2000-01. It uncovered one remarkable finding. Children taking part in regular organised sport and physical activities aged five, seven and 11 were almost 1½ times more likely to reach a higher than expected level in their Key Stage Two maths test aged 11. The study, overseen by University College London’s Institute of Education, controlled for other factors – like a child’s background and whether they were young or old for their school year.
In an age when educational inequalities have never been so manifest, school sport offers a way to reduce them. The Institute of Education found that economically disadvantaged children who took part in more sport fared markedly better in their exams.
Disadvantaged children who took part in after-school sports clubs achieved, on average, a two-point higher total score in their Key Stage Two assessments. The extra points amount to 40 per cent of the average attainment gap between disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged children aged 11.
Similar findings have been replicated in other studies, in Canada, Germany and beyond. Across different classes, cultures and countries, children who do more physical activity tend to perform better in class.
The sports field helps children to ‘learn the discipline of turning up, being prepared and playing to their best ability’
The magic of sport begins with the mundanity of seeing what it takes to succeed. The sports field is a brilliant laboratory for children to “learn the discipline of turning up, being prepared and performing to their best ability,” observes Dr Emily Tanner, the lead investigator of the English study. Such routines – learning to show up to practice in sun or snow alike – can help mould the consistent behaviours that children need to improve in class.
Sport, as the old aphorism has it, develops character. This takes many forms: working in teams; developing resilience and coping with failure; and instilling children with greater competitiveness, which they can put to use far away from the pitch. Children taking part in physical activity and sport in primary school tend to have better social, emotional and behavioural skills.
Succeeding in sport has also been shown to benefit children’s self-confidence.
Less well understood is how sport can benefit the brain. When children have greater levels of aerobic fitness, this is linked to improving their cognitive function, explains Prof Craig Williams from the University of Exeter. Regular physical activity can make children better-equipped to learn – developing brain function through increased oxygen to the brain.
Boosting fitness and stamina can give children more energy, sharpening their focus, with sports participation linked to greater concentration in class.
As Covid-19 has illustrated to many children and adults alike, regular sport also improves mental health. Doing sport releases endorphins, helping relieve stress. Children doing more sport report greater well-being, which can in turn benefit their studies.
This all suggests that the conversation about school sport needs to be reframed. Paying for school playing fields, coaches and sports programmes should not be seen as competing for cash. Instead, sensible investment in sport should be viewed as an essential tool for getting the best out of children inside the classroom.
The distinction between work and play is a false dichotomy. It is clear that children who are not active are not giving themselves the best chance to succeed in class and for children to fulfil their educational potential, they need to spend enough time playing sport.
So, perhaps the parents of children struggling at school need to change their advice. Not getting the grades? Maybe you need to spend more time on the pitch.