“It was a statistic that made me do it,” says Roger Black, settling back into a large sofa in the sunny living room of his Surrey house. We’re discussing the Roger Black Olympic Challenge, a project – covered in a series of programmes on Radio 4 – that saw him teaching PE to a class of 12-year-olds in a London comprehensive school.
“At the time the government was saying, as a guideline, that every child at school in this country should do two hours’ PE a week. But less than one third of schools were achieving that,” he explains.
“I feel quite strongly about children exercising. Not for the obvious reasons like obesity. I just feel children should get used to doing exercise at a young age, because it becomes part of your life, a habit. I believe that people who exercise have a better quality of life. Not just physically, but also mentally and academically.”
The idea behind the challenge was that Black would spend a term working with a class of 30 year eight pupils, comprising an equal number of girls and boys. Their fitness levels would be tested at the beginning of the term and again at the end. Their academic results would also be monitored to see whether more exercise on the curriculum had a correlating, positive impact on their performance in the classroom.
A TOUGH TASK
The school selected for the challenge was Hurlingham and Chelsea in Hammersmith, a comprehensive whose upmarket name belied the reality of the situation. The numerous issues to overcome included a lack of playing fields or outdoor space for physical activity at the school; the fact that the class had never done any competitive sport; and the timetable allowed for only an hour and a half of PE per week. This was combined with a general lack of interest, both among parents – only two showed up for the presentation by Black and the BBC to launch the challenge – and the pupils, many of whom would conveniently ‘forget’ to bring in their PE kit.
“I don’t expect everyone to be into sport,” says Black. “But the amount of apathy in the class worried me – and that’s the right word. It didn’t anger me; it worried me. I believe that, in life, the most important thing is to be passionate about what you’re doing, to try and give it your best. If I were to generalise about that class of school children, there wasn’t much passion there.”
The project was, then, a difficult one from the outset, but objectives quickly evolved into a range of even more ambitious goals. “I was looking at more than just getting them fitter. I knew I could do that,” says Black.
“Firstly, we had to get more time allocated to PE. Then came the facilities – how to get them access to green fields, as they didn’t have any at school. Another problem was how hard it is for PE teachers to do their jobs now. One PE teacher for 28 kids is really very difficult.
“We also wanted to introduce proper competition to the kids. That came from a belief that competition is good, not just because it’s good to try and achieve something, but also because it’s good to learn from not achieving something.
“I think, if you deprive children of competition, if you protect them too early, then you’re doing them an injustice. Because all great champions and leaders will have one thing in common – they’ll point to their defeats as the events that shaped them, not their victories. I think, if you subject children to disappointment and then teach them how to overcome and use that, it builds them for later in life.
“So that was really my thing. I wanted them to genuinely experience teamwork as well, which they’d never done in their whole lives. To support each other in a challenge.”
To give the children a goal to aim towards, Black arranged for a competition to be scheduled for the end of the term. His class would compete in the SportsHall Challenge against pupils from two well-known sporting schools: Latymer Upper, a 400-year-old private school, and Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College – a flagship academy. “If you haven’t got something to work towards, you’re not going to do it,” he explains. “There has to be a consequence to your actions. If you don’t have any dates or goals or anything to shoot for, you just drift.”
He had a term to prepare the class. However, finding extra time for PE within the timetable – Black believes exercise within school hours should be compulsory, not just recommended as a guideline – was in itself a challenge. They found two extra half-hour periods a week, but only by taking the class out of assembly. “Better than nothing,” he says, “but a bit of a cop-out by the school.”
Meanwhile, the lack of sports facilities was addressed in two ways. Firstly, Black negotiated with the council to set up a school sports zone within the public park opposite the school. “For the PE teacher, that in itself is everything,” says Black. “It’s mad, on a sunny afternoon, to be in a gym or on a concrete floor. Just to take the kids outside into the fresh air makes a big difference.
“The residents were fine about the kids using the park. They made a really important point, saying: ‘We want the kids to use the park during the day. It’s nice to have a park with activity in it and, if the children use it and see it as theirs, they’re less likely to vandalise it’. So the school sports zone is going to be piloted by Hammersmith Council next term.”
Black also approached a nearby private members’ club and obtained free access for the kids to train there, rather than in the cramped school gym. “How much of it was because it was me and the BBC, who knows, but the private club was fine about it – so long as the children behaved, they were happy,” he says.
The third major issue was the shortage of PE staff – a situation which is replicated across the country, and which will only get worse should more PE classes be added to the school timetable. With this in mind, Black and his team launched a national volunteer programme through TimeBank, whereby those with sporting expertise – at whatever level – can offer their time as voluntary PE teachers at local schools.
“The volunteer programme is absolutely crucial,” says Black. “PE teachers just need help. They need adult bodies there, people who’ve played sport, who can coach and help out. I think there are lots of people out there who would really enjoy it. They don’t have to be Olympic athletes; just people who’ve got the tracksuit. The kids didn’t know who I was but I would say use your local sporting celebrities, if you can.”
EACH TO THEIR OWN
“These kids need adults around them,” Black continues. “They’ve lost respect for adults, no doubt about it. My greatest challenge was winning them over.
“A lot of them just couldn’t be bothered. But I had to see through that and understand that there were far deeper reasons for not liking sport. I’ve always been interested in motivation, in what makes people tick, recognising that different people are motivated in different ways.
“Once I’d worked that out, I was able to look at the class and put them in boxes. ‘This person needs more one-on-one’, for example, or ‘this person just needs to be told’. ‘This person needs to be kept active or they’re going to go bonkers’, ‘this person just needs gentle encouragement’. In doing that, I was able to really turn it around. Not forgetting that I was a novelty – it was easier for me than for a teacher they see all the time. But with all of them, and especially the girls, it was just getting them to believe that it was OK to give something a go.”
The girls found sport ‘boring’, so Black arranged for Pineapple to come into the school to run a dance class – a huge success. “We didn’t split the class very often, because we were preparing as a team for one competition. But, as a result of what we did, I think the PE teacher has now split the class into boys and girls.
“For many of the girls, it was just getting them to move, to do exercise. If they want to dance for an hour and a half every week, let’s not get hung up on the fact that it’s not sport. If they’re doing strong physical exercise, let them do that. The ones who enjoy sport will do it outside of school.”
The feedback from the class speaks for itself. “I’ve noticed the difference from doing more sports and PE,” says pupil Sara Hills who, before the programme, had claimed there was no point in going to PE because she was ‘rubbish at everything’. “I’ve grown more confident and it’s helped me concentrate in lessons. I look at sport in a different way – I think ‘yeah, that’s fun, I’ll give it a try’.”
Her comments are echoed by head-
teacher Phil Cross, who says: “For all the children in that group, our evidence shows amazing spin-offs in the lessons. They made better progress, concentrated better and were more focused than tutor groups that weren’t involved in the project.” As a result, Cross is now changing the curriculum to introduce more sport for the whole school.
For Black, however, his greatest achievement came on the day of the competition. His school came third out of three, but he insists: “Without a doubt, the thing I’m most proud of, is that on the day of the final, they all turned up. And they were really proud to represent their school.
“It’s not about where you come. Failure is just not bothering. I’m much more interested in the kid who walks off the track having come last, but having bust a gut, than the one with the talent who comes second because they couldn’t be bothered to win. That upsets me more than anything.”
So what now? Can the success of this programme be replicated in other schools?
“There aren’t going to be any schools worse than the one I went to, facilities-wise,” says Black. “If we can do it there… It’s a values thing, really. It’s saying ‘how much do we value physical exercise?’ And it’s creative thinking. Jamie Oliver’s done incredible things with diet, bringing awareness of how bad that was. I don’t think PE in school is as bad as nutrition in school, but it’s not as good as it should be.
“If it’s stimulated that debate, if it’s brought it a little bit higher up the public agenda, then that’s great. But we need to lead it really. We can’t just expect it to happen.
“I’ve got a meeting with Radio 4 next week to talk about where we take it from here. Where would I like it to go? I’d love to see the school curriculum changed so children are doing exercise every other day instead of one day a week. That’s not hard. It’s up to the headteachers. You consult with parents and you change the curriculum.
“We have debates on Radio 5 with people giving figures of how many hours schools are doing, but they’re missing the point. That’s what kids are doing outside of school hours as well, which is fine for those who love sport. But they weren’t the ones I was targeting – it was the children who hated sport, who did no physical exercise. They’re never going to be champions, but they might enjoy it.”
The volunteer programme, meanwhile, is already running nationally. However, facilities are still an issue at many schools, and Black believes that securing outdoor space in local parks, as his team has done in Hammersmith, is key. “I would hope that will be picked up by other councils around the country,” he says. “It’s a council, not a government, decision and it’s not expensive.”
THE 2012 EFFECT
As for the name Olympic Challenge, Black says: “It wasn’t about finding future Olympians – that’s belittling what it takes to be an Olympic athlete. It was just to use the Olympic Games as a catalyst.
One of the main benefits of the Olympics will be the opportunity to raise the awareness of sport in this country and get children involved. This project was part of that. Every school in the country, over the next five years, should be doing projects around the Olympic Games. We’ll never have this opportunity again.
“In the end, the most important thing with sport is that you make it fun and exciting and something that engages people. Sport is something people get passionate about, and I think passion is the key. Because kids buy into it. If you can catch them and get them excited about something, they will follow.”