Class­room suc­cess

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - En­gleby.

‘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.

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