Breaking new play ground

A new initiative to bring school sport to all reaches its climax this week. Andrew Baker reports
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The Independent Online
The Battle of Waterloo, it was famously said, was won on the playing fields of Eton. That was a very long time ago, yet to this day the best known school sports fixture in Britain remains the cricket match between Eton and Harrow at Lord's. The fame of the fixture is out of all proportion to its importance, as it pits one fortunate, well-resourced group of youngsters against another. More useful - and entertaining - would be a form of competition open to all schools, regardless of resources and facilities. Panathlon may be the answer.

Panathlon - it translates as "all sports" - is the brainchild of Mark Barker, a veteran sports administrator from Surrey. He realised that many schools, particularly in the inner cities, lacked the space and facilities for sport that are taken for granted at more fortunate establishments. So he conceived a competition that can be staged in the two arenas that all schools possess: a gym and a playground.

The Panathlon comprises nine sports: badminton, cycling, five-a-side football, netball, basketball, athletics, table tennis, orienteering and chess. "By using a series of sports, we can develop team spirit and promote physical culture in an entire school from top to bottom," Barker explained. "We can also run the whole competition between four schools on the same day."

The Royal SunAlliance Panathlon Challenge was launched late last year, when 32 schools, one from each London borough, competed in the first round. On Friday the final takes place at Grey Court School in Richmond, where the home team take on Bishop Ramsey school from Hillingdon, Hackney Free and Parochial School from east London, and Ashburton High School from Croydon.

The line-up reflects the equality of opportunity that was Barker's intention. Two schools, Bishop Ramsey and Grey Court, are from what Barker terms "the leafy suburbs", the other two from less comfortable areas.

The only battle that has been won on the playing fields of Ashburton High School is the battle for the reputation of the school itself. Housed in a former hospital on the outskirts of Croydon, Ashburton needed treatment after recent attacks in the local press and from local politicians. Croydon's Director of Education was used to receiving a complaint every week about the school. But so far this term, there has been just one. Ashburton is changing for the better, and while the Panathlon cannot take all the credit, success in the competition has unquestionably helped to restore a sense of self-belief in what had become a beleaguered institution.

"It has been a real boost," the headteacher, George Varnava, said in his office last Friday. "We were really determined to rise to the challenge, we achieved our objectives and it has helped us to gain the confidence of the local community."

Varnava feels that the Panathlon encourages in children qualities that they will find useful in later life: "Persistence, courage, imagination and the ability to work with others." Which is all very noble, but, courtesy of the sponsors, there are benefits for the schools that take part as well: free equipment, such as hurdles and a long-jump mat for the indoor athletics, and obstacles for the bicycle challenge, and a pounds 1,000 coaching allowance for each school to bring in outside help.

But much of the effort must come from the schools' own resources, and this has meant asking teachers to coach in their spare time, something which was once common practice, but which has faded away since the strikes of the Eighties.

Outside Mr Varnava's office, his staff were putting their pupils through their paces in preparation for Friday's final. Mr Hawkins oversaw the cyclists as they weaved between cones on their bikes, riding up and down a pivoted plank and limboing under horizontal poles. "I'm a science teacher," he explained, "which is a good background for this - it's all about centres of gravity." A young girl rider zoomed under a pole and narrowly avoided a wall as she lined up the next obstacle. "I am also a first aider," Mr Hawkins added. "And that too may come in useful."

On another part of the playground, the netball team practised. Behind them, the badminton players, and elsewhere in the complex the other teams were at work - in all, around 120 children.

Peter Yates, the head of PE, seemed to be everywhere at once, encouraging, cajoling. "We've had a wonderful response from Day One," he said, watching the basketball team shoot hoops. "From the moment I stood up in assembly and told them about the Challenge, the response has been fantastic."

And not just from those previously inclined to be sporty: another objective of the Panathlon is to involve as many different skills and abilities as possible. Ashburton's chess maestro is young Israel Vidal. He was confident of success in the final: "We'll do it, no problem," he said. "In the last round I let my opponent take my Queen just to even things up." Israel is wheelchair-bound, but as well as being a whiz at chess he shoots a mean basket.

"All kids are equal in sport," Mark Barker observed. "Success in the Panathlon is down to the motivation of the staff and the children fighting for the school." Ashburton has more to prove than most schools, not least that centres of privilege such as Eton do not have a monopoly on fighting spirit.