Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Fields of learning: The power of sport to transform lives

A Sport NZ programme that uses sport as a classroom tool is being trialled in secondary schools, reports Dana Johannsen.

It is the last period before lunch on an uncomfortably hot day in the heart of the King Country, but there is no sign of restlessness in Alan Ford's Year 9 maths class.

The students' eyes, although some are partially obscured by heavily gelled fringes, are transfixed as they watch footage of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt winning the 100m final at last year's London Olympics.

"Great race, wasn't it?" Ford says, turning to his Te Kuiti High School class as they cheer the world's fastest man. "Now, who can tell me how we work out on average how far Bolt travels per second?"

Immediately four hands shoot up and Ford leads the discussion of how to calculate how much ground Bolt can cover in a second. There are a couple of suggestions from left field ("measure his stride") before they settle on the right equation, then another race is on to see who can arrive at the correct number first.

Such enthusiasm isn't something you'd expect to see in maths, but then Ford's approach isn't one often taken by teachers.

"It's hard to get them enthusiastic about counting how many apples you would have in a bag if you remove half, or train time tables. Kids need some kind of connection to the numbers," he says.

A few doors down the corridor, Greg Londt stands at the front of his English class as his students work on a writing exercise. He is getting the class to come up with a descriptive piece of writing in a sporting context.

"Sport is a really good vehicle for exploring values and thinking about life in general," says Londt.

One student writes about the exhilaration of the final stretch of a waka ama race; another describes the anxiety as she lines up for a race on athletics day.

"A lot of short stories that students write are related to the negative aspects of teen life like gangs, alcohol, suicide, but now I expect to see more positive stories."

Te Kuiti is one of eight high schools that are in the early stages of trialling a Sport NZ initiative that promotes sport as a tool for learning.

The Sport in Education scheme is aimed at improving academic performance - in particular numeracy and literacy rates - as well as social outcomes in schools. The three-year project also aims to boost participation in school sport and better connect secondary schools to their surrounding communities.

With the 2011 New Zealand young people's survey finding more than 90 per cent of kids like playing sport, Garry Carnachan, who heads the Sport in Education programme nationally, says it makes sense to use sport as a tool to address problems in education.

The idea isn't to build generations of sport-obsessed kids, or to find the next rugby and netball stars, but to help create better students.

There is a wealth of research published over the past decade that indicates sport is an effective way to engage students, that the values and characteristics of sport can be effectively transferred to classroom learning environments, and that quality physical education enhances academic performance in other areas.

"Kids seem to get the values in sport," Carnachan says.

"If they see someone standing at the top of an Olympic podium they understand that they've had to work really hard for their reward, they've had to show a lot of self-discipline, they've had to follow the rules - the values that sport has are obvious to kids, but not so obvious inside a school culture.

"All schools have really good values, and they state them, but how do they translate them to kids? Sometimes they're just words on the wall."

The Sport NZ programme has drawn upon the success and knowledge gained from a similar project that has been hugely successful in England, run by the UK Youth Sports Trust, which includes 550 schools.

Carnachan says he has visited several British schools and spoken to principals who credit their sports programme with turning their schools around. "In terms of engaging kids, reducing truancy, improving social behaviour and academic performance, some of them have made amazing gains."

Te Kuiti High School is a decile 3 school with a roll of just 335 - 60 per cent of whom identify as Maori.

The NZDep2006 index of deprivation paints a sobering picture of life for youth in the area.

Young people in Te Kuiti are more likely to come from a single-parent household (29 per cent, against the national average of 18 per cent), less likely to leave school with formal qualifications (40.2 per cent of those 15 or over have no formal qualification, compared with 25 per cent nationwide), and only 20 per cent of school leavers will go on to tertiary education. Teen pregnancy rates are double the national average, and youth are twice as likely to be referred to mental health services.

Principal Bruce Stephens instantly saw the value the Sport in Education programme could offer his students.

He believes its principles align closely with the Ministry of Social Development community project that Te Kuiti is already involved in, with other small towns such as Kawerau, Tokoroa and Taumarunui that face similar social challenges.

"I could see a real connection to that whole community thing that we were doing, so for me, I got really excited about the sport project."

Stephens, who has been head for 10 years, has worked hard to make "school a good place to be" for his students, developing a curriculum that serves the broad needs of the community. Keeping students engaged and motivated is a challenge for all schools, but for an area with so many negative socio-economic factors at play, it is a constant battle.

The Sport NZ programme won't provide a silver bullet, but Stephens believes it will help get the best out of the students.

"One of the things about sport is it develops confidence, so we're trying to connect that to the classroom and get that confidence going, because for a lot of learners, the reason why they may struggle is because they lack the self-confidence. So that sporting connection brings that alive," Stephens says.

"We've shifted it from the teacher owning the knowledge to the teacher being the facilitator of the knowledge."

Gareth Williams, the head of physical education, has seen first hand the transformative powers of programmes such as Sport NZ's.

The Welshman, who moved to New Zealand six years ago, has had experience with similar projects in Britain and believes it is a "no-brainer" for the strategies to be adopted here.

Over the next three years the NZ Council of Education Research will measure progress at the eight schools on the trial, looking not only at academic performance and truancy rates, but also at less tangible results such as the effect on school culture.

Being small, Te Kuiti High School can implement the programme across year levels, rather than targeted groups as other schools are doing. Williams expects to see big improvement but warns that noticeable gains may take a couple of years.

"There are baseline things that are happening already." One look inside Ford's classroom would confirm that.

Sport in Education

What is it?
A new initiative led by Sport NZ to improve academic and social outcomes in schools by using sport as a context for learning and student engagement.

"Every day we see the power of sport to change the lives of young people and to help them succeed in other aspects of life. This project will harness that power for schools to get the results they want in their communities" - Peter Miskimmin, Sport NZ chief executive

Trial schools
Aotea College, Wellington
Hillmorton High School, Christchurch
Howick College, Auckland
Kaikorai Valley College, Dunedin
Papakura High School, Auckland
Queen's High School, Dunedin
Tauranga Boys' College, Tauranga
Te Kuiti High School, Te Kuiti

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