School Sport: Sport a force for good in schoolhall of fame

Facilities are thin on the ground but that hasn't stopped Hackney Free from being champions. Alan Hubbard reports

It isn't often that school sport gets greater prominence than Premiership football in any sort of media but there have been several occasions recently when the youthful high-achievers of Hackney Free in east London have pushed the perennial under-achievers of Tottenham Hotspur off the back page of their local paper, the Hackney Gazette.

It isn't often that school sport gets greater prominence than Premiership football in any sort of media but there have been several occasions recently when the youthful high-achievers of Hackney Free in east London have pushed the perennial under-achievers of Tottenham Hotspur off the back page of their local paper, the Hackney Gazette.

The 750 kids there are winning their own spurs as arguably the best all-round sports school in the land while at the same time showing an impressive rise in academic standards, a success story which is all the more remarkable as more than two-thirds of the pupils are Afro-Caribbean and there isn't a playing field in sight.

Hackney's sporting achievements have been driven by Panathlon, brainchild of the late Mark Barker, which features 10 activities specially adapted for schools. These include chess and orienteering as well as more orthodox pursuits like athletics, badminton, cycling and five- a-side football. Hackney are the national champions - and on Tuesday they begin the defence of their title at the Goresbrook Leisure Centre in Essex, determined to add yet another trophy to their well-stocked Hall of Fame. Education, education, education may be the Government's theme tune, but here in one of the more depressed inner city precincts - the crime rate is 10 times the national average - it is sport, sport, sport which now teaches the kids to get more out of education.

"In less than three years we've gone from 18 per cent to 34 per cent in GCSE passes since becoming a sports college on the back of what Panathlon has done for us," says their head of sport, Adrian Mullis. "Our goal for this year is 40 per cent. Sport has been a catalyst for this, helping to develop self-esteem and leadership qualities. It has also had a positive effect on behaviour. We have one of the best attendance records in the country."

Mullis, 46, was in the international Modern Pentathlon squad during the Jim Fox era, so introducing his school to Panathlon was an easy transition. Orienteering less so. Most of the kids had never heard of a middle-class "treasure hunt" more usually pursued in the wilds of Cumbria. Hackney's youngsters make do with the school perimeters, with clues taped to the walls, bushes or the odd tree.

"Here we are really suffering with lack of space and facilities so we have to be very creative [a climbing wall has been built on an old lift shaft, for instance]. As for orienteering, well, it's hardly the Lake District, and yet now we are the top school in London and we were the only London school to have a team at the national event in Birmingham, and the only Afro-Caribbean team."

While we spoke in the school playground, a 13-year-old pupil was practising tricks on a unicycle. The school has its own club in this most curious of activities and shortly will be setting up a unicycle hockey group. "Again, this is all about confidence, which you need to ride about on one wheel. We are a Sportsmark Gold school, which means we offer a high level of sport, around 25 activities in all. I know people say we must be the envy of some other schools, but this is all down to the enthusiasm of the staff and having the creativeness and the vision to do this with the minimum of resources. We haven't got fields, we haven't got a sports centre. It is just a question of having that vision to say 'What can we do with what we have got?' "

That isn't much. An under-equipped gym, a dance hall used for badminton, a few weights and aerobic machines and a playground which doubles as a basketball court. Yet among Hackney's pupils is one who carried the Olympic torch through London, several London indoor athletics champions and the England under-16 basketball captain. Some have gone on to football academies with Premiership and League clubs.

Officially there are only two PE periods a week so most of the sports activities take place after school. "You won't find anything else in the curriculum that builds self-esteem like sport," says Mullis.

Hackney, right in the heart of London's proposed Olympic Utopia, is a veritable rainbow academy. Sprinters Sheyi Suberu, 15, and Gaye Ceesay, 16, coach the younger pupils as well as compete. They are from the Gambia and Nigeria respectively. Jacque Opoku, a 15-year-old triple jumper, is from Ghana and Janek Whittaker, the head boy, has Polish ancestry. He is the Panathlon's unbeaten chess champion. Janek agrees that you would not expect a school like Hackney to excel in such activities as chess and orienteering, but says: "It goes to show what can be done if you put your mind to it."

Ari Johnson's family come from Nigeria but he has lived in Hackney all his 15 years. He says: "Sport means a lot to me and it has taught me a lot. It means I am able to speak to you with confidence and it has brought me out as a person. It means I can channel all my energy into something positive. Sport has opened up my mind, encouraging me to ask more questions, to look at how things work."

Ari is a member of the school's orienteering and basketball teams. "When I first took up orienteering I had no idea what it was. I was confused by it all but when they showed me how to do it I found it came naturally." He is also part of a local "youth parliament" in which the young people of Hackney are encouraged to have a voice on politics and other matters such as street crime.

Mullis says he finds it incredible the Panathlon cause cannot gain significant sponsorship since Royal & Sun Alliance pulled out last year for economic reasons. He is also disappointed that Hackney Free have not been more directly involved by those running the London Olympic bid. "We are the closest secondary school to the Hackney heart of the bid and with our sporting pedigree we would hope to be involved in activities leading up to next July. Who knows, there could be kids here who will be part of a 2012 Games.

"You look in the papers and all you ever see about Hackney is murder and violence, so it is important that we get the message across that sport gives a sense of responsibility, a sense of belonging. Eight years ago you would never have thought sport could change kids like these. Now they believe in themselves and their education. This has to be good news." The Hackney Gazette seems to agree.

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