Sherborne Prep is an independent co-educational day and boarding School for children aged 3 - 13 in Dorset

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Our pupils, seizing the opportunity

An Award Winning Programme Redefining Physical Education

Oct 8 2021

Forced to evolve and adapt our long-standing traditional teaching methods in schools to truly cater for the changing needs of our pupils both in sporting participation and engagement has created the opportunity for reflection and perhaps review of ‘usual’ practice.

As Director of Sport at Sherborne Prep School, I looked back upon a workshop that I delivered to the team with the heading ‘What does winning look like?’
It was obvious to me that as a school, we had put far too much emphasis on the outcome of fixtures from a Saturday afternoon rather than the longer term focus of developing the right culture and environment for our pupils and staff to flourish as individuals, within a team structure. To me, winning is far more about having fun and building a life-long love of sport than the end result. We set about trying to design and deliver a programme that would equip our pupils with the right physical, tactical, technical toolkit to take a positive attitude and develop a lifelong participation in sporting activities.

There are some clear and obvious pillars to our programme which we feel are fundamental non-negotiables. These have taken time to embed and a great deal of hard work from a team of staff. As with all change, it has been far from a straightforward journey, but we have learnt a lot along the way and had a great deal of fun in the process.

Fun with our friends

We want the pupils in our care to have fun. Children want to play; they attempt to master reality through play whereas adults we aim to escape reality through our ‘play’! As a result, one of the first major changes that we made to our programme was to focus on team sports and a games-based approach to learning. This necessitated a change of mindset amongst our staff and an unswerving commitment to ‘not worry’ about the result on Saturday. Of course, pupils like to come out on top of the scoreboard at the end of a fixture but our commitment to switching our focus from Saturday afternoons to what goes on during our games sessions, has reaped huge reward.

Functional Movement

Five years ago, the importance of providing a physical literacy programme for the pupils in our care was limited to those in the world of athletic development or with an elite athlete programme. The relevance of developing a functional movement programme for young children is of crucial importance in the modern world, it enables all pupils to access the full sporting offer with the skills and understanding to improve their own movement. We are extremely proud of our partnership with FMS UK and have made huge progress over the last few years in developing our delivery and tailoring the programme that the pupils receive. We have redefined our Physical Education programme and now allocate a significant proportion of our time and resources into providing a sustainable impact on the movement wellbeing of our pupils.

As part of this process and in collaboration with the FMS UK system, we screen the pupils regularly throughout the year and provide them with a personalised set of exercises that contains an individualised movement skills development plan. We were confident that if we developed core movement patterns, balance, stability and the ability to move efficiently, we would achieve our goal. Pupil programmes are connected to posture, breathing and the wider benefits of physical wellness in the classroom; the concomitant benefits include a positive impact upon their well-being.

We have seen a visible difference in the functional movement of our pupils with a tangible focus on physical and mental wellbeing of our pupils. We saw a staggering 90% improvement in pupils from screen 1 results after only the first six-month block of activity. Furthermore, our Learning Support department has confirmed change in pupils with additional needs, including increased concentration with form teachers and the parents noting improvements in posture, functional skills and a renewed sense of purpose. Moving forward, we are looking to work on a research project with Cardiff Metropolitan University linked to movement in Pre-Prep aged pupils. Exciting times. 

Co-educational Sport

One of the absolute successes of the last eighteen months has been our approach to mixing the girls and boys during the games programme. We have continued to offer our major games programme but have broken away from always splitting our games by gender. This has absolutely been a product of adapting to the restrictions of bubbles and the need to maximise our resources, both physical and human, but the benefits have been astounding. It has been a resoundingly successful and popular move with both the pupils and the parents.  As we look ahead to our fixture programme next term, it is great to see that other schools are also starting to embrace the potential for mixed sporting fixtures. Challenging the traditional format of gender splits for sport is an important step forward for our sector. Having seen first-hand, the ability levels, skill levels and approach to the girls in our setting - if the parameters of the game are fair, then it is certainly a level playing field. There is certainly no physiological reason why this cannot be a focus moving forward and so, is it just our ingrained approach and perception that leads us to continue along the same path we have always followed? For clarity, I am not advocating non-contact rugby, but I would love to see more flexibility in our fixture programme so that we can play mixed, Ready4Rugby with other schools, as an example. I am also not advocating a completely mixed programme but more a balanced approach to the weekly options which facilitates opportunities.

It still strikes me as odd that we have never fully embraced this concept as Prep Schools. I appreciate that we need to consider single sex schools, National Governing Body guidance and many other factors but, I am advocating a fresh look at our fixture programme in order to move away from the gender bias and stereotypes in evidence, within our supposedly co-educational settings. The pupils do enjoy and relish the chance to play with their friends and of course the balance of some single sex sessions is important. That said, how many other departments or aspects of school life separate the girls and boys as clearly as sport? The benefits of a shared experience are huge and so taking steps to address this issue is a great way forward, for those responsible for delivering a forward-thinking programme in a modern educational establishment.  

As a result, we are incredibly proud of the progress we have made as a department and as a school over the last five years. Are we winning? I hope and think so. The collaboration and changes across the Prep School sector have been brilliant to chart over the last few years. It is clear that schools are embracing the chance to allow for a fresh look at how we deliver our sporting programmes. Sherborne Prep School merged with Sherborne School earlier this year and it is always important to us to consider how we prepare our pupils for their sporting future at senior schools. 

To finish, I would encourage all sports departments to take the opportunity to review and reflect. Physical Education matters. Ask yourself, what winning looks like in your school and challenge yourself to truly deliver on the concept of a developing lifelong love of sport and a healthy, active lifestyle. Have the courage to challenge the traditional and ask the difficult questions. What do we want to achieve and does our programme truly deliver on its stated aims?

Huw Thomas is Director of Operations and Director of Sport at Sherborne Prep School.

"We began our journey over three years ago, marvelling at the resources and innovation invested in professional sport to protect and maintain the movement efficiency of £million sporting assets. Yet we were also acutely aware of the story being told in schools around the world of the deterioration of children’s postures, breathing and movement that was reflected in statistics involving sports participation, injury and obesity. Sadly, we believe these trends will only continue as technology provides our children with ever more entertaining ways to do less and we naturally seek to make life easier and more sedentary.

Our mission is to reverse these trends by partnering with schools who share our philosophy and perspective. We want to redefine physical education/ physical literacy as an opportunity for everybody. Our partnership with Sherborne Prep has been inspirational to say the least. The energy and enthusiasm the school brings to our programme is remarkable. We are proud to be a resource in Sherborne Prep’s wider PE and Wellness programme." Peter Bowler - CEO (FMS UK) 

As an FMS pilot school, Sherborne Prep is now involved with a by Cardiff Metropolitan University research programme to study the movement of Pre-Prep children. 

Read the write up in the Boarding Schools' Association Blog.

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