Eyes on the prize: Specialist officers are giving students a better experience of sport

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The Independent Online

When Kevin Hamblin took over as principal of Filton College in Bristol, only 14 students took part in any timetabled sporting activities and just one sports coach was employed on a part-time basis. "Those 14 did football on a Wednesday afternoon and there wasn't even a goalkeeper among them," says Hamblin.

Seven years on, there are 470 students who do at least eight hours of activity every week in one of 12 different sports academies at the college, ranging from basketball to table tennis and taekwondo. The college now employs 18 sports coaches, two physiotherapists, a biomechanist, two fitness consultants, a sports nutritionist and two dieticians – all on a full-time basis to support them.

The 470 are not all elite athletes. Just 70 are studying sport-related courses. The remainder are regular students taking A-levels, vocational programmes or other courses – such as learning to read and write. They do sport to keep active, be healthy, and have fun. The activity is timetabled to fit around their study, with most academy students spending three hours each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon taking part in their sport.

Filton College has become one of the leading colleges for sport in the country, yet it still has some way to go before it meets the government target set by Gordon Brown soon after he became Prime Minister – requiring half of all college students aged 16-19 to have three hours of PE, activity or volunteering per week by 2011.

To put things in perspective, of the 2,000 full-time teenagers at Filton, less than one-quarter is currently involved in the sports academy programme. Another 450 or so are involved in performing arts, dance and cadet activities. But that still leaves more than half not doing the required three hours a week. "At this age there are other things competing for their time," says Hamblin. "They need to spend their evenings and weekends studying or doing part-time jobs, and sport is the luxury that gets dropped. But if the activity can be undertaken during the academic week, the student can train and compete and at 5pm can be a normal person."

This is why the Government is right to put pressure on colleges, which have the potential to play a key role in improving the fitness of the nation, says Hamblin. "Government research has shown that 70 per cent of students stop playing sport between 14 and 17. We hope to reverse that trend. If they are active during the 16 to 19 phase they are more likely to be an active adult."

Hamblin, who is also chair of the Principals Sports Strategy Group of the Association of Colleges, believes further education should be developed as a pathway for elite athletes, particularly with the London Olympics in 2012 in mind. "But you don't have to study sport to play sport," he adds. "The soft skills required – being reliable, working as part of a team, being a good communicator, working within set rules, and being flexible – are the transferable skills employers are looking for."

In order for colleges to meet the Prime Minister's target, the Government has provided funding so all 363 further education colleges in England could have a sports co-ordinator, (or FESCo) , in place by January 2009. So far, 270 have one. Redbridge College in East London believes their FESCo – cricket coach Kevin Foster, who was taken on in September and works two days a week on developing sports – is already responsible for a dramatic change. "I would say only around 10 per cent of our students were doing three hours of activity a week," says Stephen Peacock, Redbridge's curriculum manager for sport, travel and tourism. "It wasn't part of our agenda and there was no funding for it."

Today, basketball, five-a-side football, fitness training and cricket have been added to the enrichment programme, and there are plans to add badminton and table tennis.

"We have to change the attitude of 16-year-olds who have had bad experiences of sport at school and convince them that it does help them develop socially and physically and will be of benefit to them in the future," says Peacock.

One way in which colleges are igniting the interest of students is through quirky or less well-known sports such as surfing, golf and equestrian sports. Hartpury College in Gloucester has employed a recreational sports officer, who promotes sport within the college and makes sure students know that every evening of the week, they can play practically every sport you can think of.

"One of the key things we do is capture students at freshers' week, ensuring there are different stalls for each recreational activity at the Freshers' Fair and ensuring that the people on those stalls are the most enthusiastic staff," says Chris Chrichton, sports facilities manager at the college.

For those that discover sporting talent and want to take it further, they can. Hartpury's rugby team is only three leagues away from national league rugby, and train six days a week. Two years ago, Exeter College was the first educational institution from the state sector to win a major rugby competition. "In the past, it had always been won by the independent sector," says Principal Richard Atkins. "That was really motivating and confidence-boosting for our students."

Atkins says the entire culture of colleges feels different as a result of the emphasis on sport. "You see students wearing sports clothing such as tracksuits or clothing with sports logos on far more than in the past. They like being associated with sport," he says.

Crucially, Hamblin says students appear to be getting better grades.

"We are an education institution and we use sport to attract students, to retain them and to get them to achieve. Our A-level students who are in the sports academies outperform those who are not in academies. At our inspection in 2003 we were rated a satisfactory college. In 2007 we were rated good. I think sport played a role in achieving that one grade increase."

'Basketball provides them with strong role models'

School leavers at risk of dropping out of education, employment and training are being lured into learning by the 12 sports academies set up at Filton College. Danny James, the director of basketball, says his academy is having particular success in attracting Afro-Caribbean youngsters who are likely to drop out of education at 16.

"Basketball has been booming in Bristol and our academy has 55 students aged 16 to 19, and two 20-year-olds studying sports science. One who started out on a basic level 1 course has won a scholarship to Worcester University and is playing at a professional level.

Another, who started on level 1, has completed a level 3 (A-level equivalent) in sports science and is working on a community project delivering healthy lifestyles to primary school children.

Basketball provides them with very strong role models, keeps them in education and on the straight and narrow."

'This is all about re-engaging people'

Graeme Atkinson, who used to be a professional footballer, has been appointed FESCo at Myerscough College in Lancashire to engage the 3,000 students not on sports related courses in sporting activities.

Myerscough already had an international reputation for its specialist sports provision in football, golf, cricket, rugby, and equestrian events, and attracts students from Spain, Portugal, Slovakia, and Greece. But Atkinson's aim is to increase the number of students who were not previously interested in sport.

He comments, "I've done a number of things from putting ads on student bulletin boards to ensuring that areas like the sports hall and aerobics studio are available to put on engaging activities at convenient times. One thing that's been particularly popular is putting on archery classes in the evenings. It might not be a physical activity, but it's an Olympic sport and it can help people to feel good at an activity again. This is all about re-engaging people."