Exceptional Education at the Heart of the Community

Preparing children physically and emotionally to learn – in an ever changing world

Preparing children physically and emotionally to learn – in an ever changing world

If there is one thing COVID-19 has enabled educationalists to do, it is too deeply consider their actions carefully. This opportunity for reflection, for better or worse, has given us time to gauge successes and acknowledge areas for development in a way we have never faced before, writes Clare Hoods-Truman, Executive Principal at Oasis Academy Blakenhale Infants, and Junior.

Realising my academies vision of ‘Healthy bodies, healthy minds: promising futures’ has consistently required rigorous personal and professional reflection. It is necessary to continue leading the way for others in our approach to using physical activity, fitness and sport. It is essential in equipping every learner with the essential social capital that provides resilience in difficult times. It informs the mindset that embodies the three Well Schools pillars.

Although nobody could have foreseen the events of the last year, our sports and physical wellbeing vision ensured we were well prepared to address some of the issues thrown our way. Over the last five years, our school has had its strong, confident sprinting start and our ethos is set, but now we have entered the more challenging mid-section of our personal race. Our pupils, staff and wider school community will need to draw heavily on the ethos we have created. The intention is that it will provide the much-needed fortitude through the difficult times ahead, as we continue to face this global pandemic.

When faced with such insurmountable uncertainty in education, physical wellbeing, sports provision and the world as a whole, our success in implementing our ethos provides comfort. It serves to remind us that we once before started in a place that initially seemed impossible to move forward from.

Historically, there has always been a long tradition of sport and fitness at Blakenhale School. However, a drop in fitness and overall interest in sport and physical activity, perhaps reflected in the rise in disadvantaged children in the area, had taken hold during a financial downturn that will seem insignificant compared with the economic downturn ahead.

Located in south Birmingham, our academy is an integral part of our constituency - Stechford and Yardley North. While being serviced by a number of leisure centres, green spaces and other recreational areas, it performs poorly in statistical indicators of health outcomes. The academies reside in one of the top 10% of poorest constituencies in the UK. Based on recent data, our ward is ‘significantly worse than the England average for children in poverty, excess weight in 10-11-year-olds, cardiovascular disease deaths preventable and mortality from causes considered preventable’.

These indicators can be combated with a healthy, active lifestyle, but the ‘poverty’ issue can severely limit access to opportunities – making our impact all the more important.

When I first took up my post as Executive Principal, my two schools were under-performing (in every sense of the word). I needed to focus on wellbeing first and create a healthy, positive mind set among staff and pupils. The implementation of my vision was immediate and fully formed from my very first day: ‘Healthy bodies, healthy minds: promising futures’.

Development moved swiftly by liaising with sports specialists, who then became substantive staff due to our shared commitment and culture.

Staff were onboard and together we embedded a programme in daily school life that ensured learners engaged in purposeful physical activities that could be continued within the wider community. This meant that PE, fitness and sport started our school days. Very soon, the culture changed:

  • We saw a noticeable improvement in pupils’ physical ability, behaviour and mental clarity (inside and outside of the classroom). Behaviour incidents were dramatically reduced.
  • Attendance consistently sat at above 97% and PA below the national average.
  • Standards gradually rose from being in the bottom 10% nationally, to the top 10% in writing and maths and the top 1% in reading.
  • A curriculum where PE and physical activity are the heart of all that we do.
  • A dedicated team of staff who have a love of teaching PE and sport.
  • An embedded culture where physical and mental wellbeing are part of our DNA.

While we must recognise and be grateful for the efforts of Joe Wicks and his daily PE lesson, we must learn from his example. We can’t simply rely on his clips – as fun and engaging as they are! We must take his example:

To engage with our children with a friendly enthusiastic face. We must mirror his determination to engaging with families. We must also address mental health, self-esteem and maintaining human relationships with the same parity as physical wellbeing.

We have built on this idea by providing worthwhile activities that connect our learners to the challenging and fun activities they’re used to in school.

This was by no means a singular effort by a few key individuals. It required the efforts of a range of staff, pupils and other community stakeholders to realise our goal of improved outcomes for our young people. Within other areas of our home-learning provision, ‘Healthy bodies, healthy minds: promising futures’ remains a guiding ethos. When our teaching staff sign off from our virtual sessions, they model the essential mindset of working from home: Complete the independent learning activity, contact us if you need support, then have a drink of water and pop to the toilet, after that, do 20 star jumps or burpees in a safe place (modelled by staff), and we will see you at 10:30 for our next session!

Obviously, the concerns of even the most positive among us drift to the unfathomable long-term physical and mental impact of the pandemic. Our population, especially our young people will have to deal with the COVID-19 legacy for decades to come.

With a calming, deep breath, we are able to centre ourselves and take stock.

We were among the first schools to employ fitness testing on a scale and intensity seldom before seen. Our intent had inclusivity at its core: personal improvement for all. Not just the fastest or the strongest, but success based on a system of the merits of challenging oneself. The impact on individual fitness levels was phenomenally high (an increase of 35% on average – 10% above our aspirational target set against a national average increase of 20%).

Having integrated our unique vision into all aspects of school and community-hub life, it remains the beating heart of all we do in school and for our wider locality. It informs our starting point through to providing the blueprint for how we will address the impact of the current climate.

As we approach a spring of warmer, brighter days coupled with rolling vaccinations for all, we can dare to imagine an easier downward slope in our current marathon effort.

The broad and enriching learning experience we offer our children, whilst ensuring they maintain a sense of resilience and character developed within a framing of sporting and physical activity informing all other aspects of life, learning and promising futures. There will be bumps, missteps and setbacks just like any race. But we can take comfort that we are equipped, prepared and able to lead our pupils, staff and community to a brighter year in 2021.

Written for the Youth Sport Trust Inspire Magazine – Spring 2021

Daniel Marsh