This pandemic has robbed so much from so many people, but it is particularly true for young people. They’ve been denied a normal education - widening inequalities, access to team sports, summer camps, activities and seeing their friends.
The challenges young people have faced over the last few months have been huge and present an uncertain future. Yet as a result of lockdown, we have also seen some unique opportunities to position sport and PE as a way to help young people to thrive mentally and physically.
PE to help boost wellbeing
I’ve heard from pupils that sport has been a key aspect of their life in lockdown and it proves to me the positive impact sport and more awareness around what contributes to our general wellbeing can have on young people. Data from the Youth Sport Trust shows that one consequence of weeks of lockdown has been Physical Education, sport and exercise helping 27% of young people to feel better. 40% said that not being able to take part in sport during lockdown was something that had made them feel worse. And importantly, 4 million children and young people now plan to do more sport and exercise in the future.
As my school welcomes pupils back, I am determined that we don’t return to norms and old habits. We were already encouraging our staff to try Bollywood dancing to improve wellbeing pre-Covid, so why not our pupils too? We must continue to embed wellbeing and sport even more, not less. Young people need to feel safe and not worried or stressed in school. Sport and PE can be one of the tools in their box to help them to do this.
At the start of this year, I heard about a Well Schools movement powered by children’s charity the Youth Sport Trust, it chimed so true to the ethos of our school that I signed up as a founding school straight away to further our learning and commitment. I joined hundreds of other schools in making a pledge through the online community to ensure our curriculum continues to have a strong focus on wellbeing to equip young people for the future – beyond numbers and grades on a piece of paper.
We’ve come a long way since I arrived as headteacher at Kensington Primary School in 2013. Our Ofsted rating was ‘requires improvement’ and staff morale was low. Back then, school sport, PE and wellbeing were not a valued part of our curriculum or even considered as a tool for helping our pupils and staff to thrive.
Highest rates of child homelessness in England
We are based in Newham, East London, an area of significant deprivation with the highest levels of child homelessness and overcrowded housing in England. 97% of children at Kensington have English as an additional language, many cannot speak English at all, and some children arrive from abroad with no prior education. This all makes a challenging job even tougher for our staff.
Seven years on and our school is rated Outstanding and we have maintained a Gold Youth Sport Trust Quality Mark after working hard to embed and improve our school’s PE and school sport provision.
But as I mentioned, life at Kensington wasn’t always like this. Staff used to struggle to teach the national curriculum alongside all the additional elements children needed to be equipped for their future. Unlike schools where children have enrichment opportunities from birth, our school provides the only opportunity to gain vital life experiences since many of our pupils come from such difficult backgrounds.
Focus on wellbeing, not academic attainment
Change is difficult but necessary. I am proud of how we have made the shift from being driven by academic achievement to pupil and staff wellbeing. Staff now have a wellbeing programme which includes Bollywood dancing sessions and massage days, and more importantly we ensure they are listened to. If things aren’t working for them, they’re improved or removed. There is no formal monitoring and no performance management structure for teaching staff, instead there is a culture of support.
For our pupils, we welcomed ‘Curriculum K’. A huge piece of work finding out what universities, businesses and secondary schools felt children needed in the 21st century. ‘Curriculum K’ is Kensington’s bespoke curriculum designed to meet the needs of the children attending our school. Instead of teaching geography, history and music, our pupils learn about health (physical and emotional), communication and culture. They still learn to read and write, but this alternative to the national curriculum enables pupils to transition to secondary school with enthusiasm, a love of learning and the ability to effectively communicate with their peers.
A Well School movement
Having health so ingrained in our curriculum has also helped teachers learn that if a child is struggling to read, most of the time, this is caused by underlying mental or emotional health rather than a specific issue with reading.
There’s a real feeling among schools that we should have more agency to be able to support, develop and grow together to help young people. Well Schools does just that and I really think it can help us as a school to ensure young people grow up with the tools they need to maintain good mental and physical health. I hope it is something we can encourage every school in the country to get behind.
Ben Levinson is a head teacher at Kensington Primary and one of the 33 Founding School members of Well Schools. To find out more about Well Schools visit youthsporttrust.org/wellschool