FIRST NIGHT: FEATHERSTONE HIGH SCHOOL: In a class of their own

Alan Hubbard meets staff and pupils who are seriously successful at playing games
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The Independent Online
THOSE WHO think school sport is a waste of space should be encouraged to take a trip to the multi- ethnic pocket of west London known as Southall, where the air throbs to the sound of jets hovering over Heathrow and the sweet smell of Asian spices nestles in the nostrils.

Southall is a sporting desert. It used to boast quite a famous amateur football club, but that is now a housing estate. The Fenner Brockway Sports Centre - named after an Old Labour firebrand - was closed by the last Tory council administration. Closed, too, are the local swimming pool, bowling green and tennis courts, while a disused artificial turf pitch in the park looks more like flotsam on a debris-littered beach.

But what Southall does have is Featherstone High, a school which has become a sporting oasis in that desert, a veritable beacon to those who believe sport not only has a part to play in the well-being of the young but in forging community spirit.

Featherstone is a mixed comprehensive for 11 to 16-year-olds. What is remarkable is that it has just been awarded sports college status, one of only 34 in the country and the first to be almost entirely composed of pupils from ethnic minorities.

Some 20 sports are played at Featherstone, situated at the poorest end of Southall, by the 1,100 students, 80 per cent of whom are from the Indian subcontinent with the rest composed of an ethnic mix of around 30 different nationalities. Like other schools in the Heathrow area, Featherstone has become a repository for the waifs and strays of international conflict. There are more than 100 Somalis and a clutch of refugees from Afghanistan to Kosovo. Many of the pupils have been in the country for less than two years, and out of that complement of 1,100 the head teacher, Thelma Cox, says the white English kids can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

When Mrs Cox came to Featherstone in 1992 it was a failing school. But in seven years it has become one of education's success stories, transformed by a policy of using sport to build bridges not only within the school's mixed cultures, but within the local community.

"There is tremendous enthusiasm for sport here, yet sport is not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of a sedentary and relatively unhealthy Asian lifestyle," says Mrs Cox. "If you look at our kids you'll see they are not muscular. They arrive here with very low levels of fitness and skills but now I can see the difference in the way they run, in their co-ordination and their general awareness."

As with other sports colleges, Featherstone's academic results have improved too, producing higher GCSE pass rates and more rapidly improving standards than many comparable schools, an indication - if ever one was needed - that a healthy sports curriculum can enhance the more cerebral pursuits.

But the real contribution at Feath-erstone is that of enterprise and compromise. Mrs Cox acknowledges that she is no PE specialist. She captained her school netball team, but admits she is "a bit of a couch potato these days". But it has been her drive and enthusiasm, allied to that of Joy Spreadbury, who heads the school's five-strong full-time PE staff, which has put Featherstone on its high.

Of the school's 62 teaching staff, more than half are engaged in some form of sports activity, in and out of school hours. Featherstone has become not only a sports college of distinction but the local sports centre, opening its doors to the public, local clubs and primary schools seven days a week, with facilities that embrace football coaching - for both boys and girls - from Brentford FC and the housing of the local national league basketball team, Ealing Tornados. Their coach, Jack Majewski, also runs the school's burgeoning basketball programme. "I have never seen so much talent among youngsters of this age," he enthuses.

Basketball is big at Featherstone; so, of course, are football, hockey and cricket. Of the traditional team sports only rugby is not played, and an arrangement with nearby Brunel University enables more esoteric activities - such as wall rock- climbing - to be part of the curriculum alongside badminton, netball, volleyball, cycling and a whole host of martial arts including kick boxing. There is trampolining, too. Nick Walder, who manages the profit-making sports centre, is a former national trampoline coach, and the activity seems to reflect the eternal spring in the step at Featherstone. At any time you will see as many pupils in tracksuits as in the dark blue school uniform.

"We haven't produced any international stars or national champions as yet, though we do have representatives at county level," says Joy Spreadbury, a former Hounslow hockey player. "But we're working on it, and perhaps what is more important is that our sports activities provide an exit route for the youngsters to go on and join sports clubs, many of whom now have links with the school, and perhaps even make a career in sport. Five years ago every kid here got 50 minutes of sport a week. Now they get up to 150 minutes, with an extra 150 when they take a GCSE in PE." Astoundingly, half the pupils at Featherstone are now doing so, which contradicts the national trend among Asians and the known antipathy from the parents of Muslim girls, for whom sport has been alien to their culture. But Featherstone seems to have overcome this barrier, and now several pupils among the class of '99 are hoping to become physical educationalists.

A glance at some recent GCSE exam papers reveals that sport is no longer the refuge of duffers. You don't get a pass just by sticking a ball in the net or leaping over a vaulting horse. Students can be asked to explain the effects of creatine in muscle building or the workings of fast-twitch muscle fibres. But for most the sports programme is there to be enjoyed - especially football, where Featherstone can field teams even more cosmopolitan than Chelsea's.

Pinned to the notice-board outside the sports hall is a squad list for a forthcoming fixture. It reads: "San-deep, Jim, Armar, Nasar, Abdi, Dav- inda, Harndwp, Vija, Wohab, Ajay, Alinsaw, Nidtin, Baldeep, Amit."

Later this month Featherstone play host to the finals of the Royal & Sun Alliance Panathlon Challenge - the popular mini-Olympics designed for inner-city schools. When Featherstone first took part they had to practise for the table-tennis event on the school dining-table. Now they have five tables of their own.

Featherstone have raised the money for their various projects from local and educational authorities and various sponsorships, including the local curry factory. By the standard of many schools their facilities are not outstanding - they don't have a high-quality playing field - but they have made the best of what they do have, and have built, and are in the process of compiling a pounds 3.5m Lottery bid which would enable them to improve their facilities, both for themselves and for the community.

"It has been seven years' hard slog," says Mrs Cox. "To get some of our sports facilities we have had to compromise on other things, like having tiles in the loos. But suddenly somebody seems to think that we are worth investing in, which is good for the self-esteem of the staff and the students. It is important that a school like ours should be showing the way."

Indeed, in this respect Featherstone High would seem to be in a class of its own.

WOULD YOU PASS?

Sample questions from this year's GCSE Physical Education exam

1 Name two synovial joints.

2 How can diet and metabolism affect exercise?

3 How does the nervous system control muscular action?

4 Name one joint where you are likely to experience flexion.

5 What is VO2 maximum?

6 Give two features of fartleck training.

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