The pinnacle of college sport was on show at Bath University last month at the 37th National College Championships. Almost 1,800 students competed at top college level across 14 disciplines, with many participants the product of sport academies set up by their colleges to promote inter-college and regional competition.
As well as competing in their chosen sport, students competed for points for their region. Colleges in the south-west region won the coveted Wilkinson's Sword overall team competition trophy, with Truro and Penwith College students playing a major part by winning the individual men’s golf and squash competitions, and the mixed tennis doubles; Exeter College took the men’s rugby sevens.
But just as important, and at the other end of the performance scale, is the pioneering yet largely unsung work of a new breed of sports staff: as part of the London Olympics legacy, 150 full-time “college Sport Makers” are being funded initially for five years from 2012 to encourage as many Further Education students as possible to take up sport or physical activity – with a particular focus on those not involved before.
Sports Makers are not only having to convince students to join in but also to get time freed up by sometimes reluctant tutors for extra activities in students’ often packed timetables – tutors, like students, may have painful memories of organised sport run by over-zealous PE teachers.
Peterborough Regional College, for instance, has helped bring staff on board by relating student participation in sport to the college self-assessment review. By involving students from different areas who are not studying sport, college departments can say they have delivered a certain amount of activity and urged students to take up activities outside their mainstream course. “This raises their internal Ofsted mark and so helps the college as well,” says the college’s Sport Maker, Chris Bryden.
At City of Bristol College, Sport Maker Gemma Parry says joint sport activity sessions encourage students to get to know their lecturers outside a teaching environment, thus building closer staff/student links and boosting student retention. She stresses the importance of getting staff onside. “Have a pilot area of success, a product people will then talk about.” Once staff can see the benefits of freeing up student time for sport, a Sport Maker’s task is that much easier.
But faced with a whole college remit, which activities do you offer first? Peterborough got its answer by going direct to its students. “When I asked what sport meant to them, many identified it as PE lessons, quite physical, and getting sweaty or cold,” says Chris Bryden. “I turned it back on its head to say they have ownership over the decision they wish to make. It’s all tailored around what the students want.”
At Truro and Penwith, each new student is given a questionnaire about activities they are interested in. “We know certain study areas are inclined towards certain sports,” says Sport Maker Julian Wills. “For instance, we found construction students have lots of energy and wanted a kick-about at lunchtime. We've put that on and without that they would not be doing any football.
“We work with tutorial groups and try to remove every barrier to sport. We sort out costing – it’s totally free; you don’t have to wear a ‘uniform’ [college sport kit]; and it’s an informal drop-in session - they are taking part with their friends. One barrier is fear and so we engage with them in something like trampolining, badminton or basketball - they are just there participating, no one’s watching.”
City of Bristol, with no specialist sports department other than a basketball academy, has introduced canteen tennis to the college in places where students meet.“ “Sport is not just about elite performance but careers and employability,” says Gemma Parry.
Timing is key, particularly for female students – one of the hardest groups to involve in sport. “You've got to find out what they want to do – away from sports course students,” says Martin Foster, Sport Development Manager at Brooksby Melton College, Leicestershire. “They told us they didn't want sessions at lunchtime as they’d get hot and sweaty and wouldn't have time to shower. So we looked later in the day, picking out free slots in their timetable. They didn’t have to do a whole hour– they’d just come in and take part.” Activities have so far included Cross-Fit and Zumba dance sessions.
Student consultations at Exeter College with its large faculty of female hair, beauty and catering students have led to self-defence jujitsu classes. “It’s circuit-based exercise and was sold to them in a way that meant they were not necessarily aware they were doing a sport,” says Exeter’s Sport Maker, Dan Pulsford. “It offered a tangible outcome that would be useful to them later in life and introduced them to types of training you can get used to and possibly take up.”
Now in the second full year of the sport maker programme, colleges are gathering data to show sport’s effect on students’ academic progress. “In July we hope to show that our regular attendees will have succeeded or overachieved compared with non-participants,” says Truro’s Julian Wills.
Already, there are plenty of anecdotal signs of success. At Truro 600 students are now taking part in health and well-being activities. Two students attended a drop-in trampolining session, got involved and much to their surprise both progressed to the regional and one to the national championships. And in a survey at Peterborough, 112 out of 153 respondents who had finished taking part in a sport activity programme said it had positively influenced their attendance record.
Colleges are already noting improved mental well-being among certain students, less anxiety, more sociability, numerous stories of students who have turned studies around and grown in confidence, and rising attendance of students – notably construction students who have often had a poor record. This summer some of the colleges will be able to get solid data on the progress of students who have started participating in sport, which is an exciting development. Watch this space.