Encouraging Participation In Sport For All

By Catherine Lester

As we witness another great year of sporting achievement, educators must look at how we can capitalise on recent successes to inspire schoolchildren to become more active and motivated – especially those who are traditionally discouraged from participating.   


Schooling is the process of creating responsible, respectful, and well-rounded individuals who are set up for success. A cornerstone of this should be sports and their potential to foster a culture of sportspersonship and holistic development as well as create healthy habits for pupils.

A lifelong enjoyment of sports and physical activity ought to be available to everyone. We must widen participation and give our pupils the best chance to engage with exercise, in a way that suits their level of ability and commitment. At LEO Academy Trust we re-shaped our existing sports provision to ensure that our approach is one that effectively supports physical activity at such a formative moment in pupils’ development.

Finding an appropriate P.E. curriculum is a one of the most influential steps, as this not only forms a huge part of life at school for both staff and pupils, but it also sets the tone for how your pupils will engage with sport beyond their childhood.

For us, this has meant a child-centred approach, focusing on driving participation levels for every child. We want our pupils, regardless of baseline ability levels to feel empowered to take part in sport, whilst also providing them with a challenge, to facilitate skill learning.

A curriculum specifically designed to build pupils’ skills and knowledge will be much longer lasting and impactful than approaching PE as a statutory requirement to fulfil. Resilience, respect, teamwork, and building awareness of exercise’s link to good wellbeing should be prioritised within the primary curriculum, just as the development of hand-eye coordination, balance and physical fitness are.

One such approach we have undertaken with marked success has been combining morning clubs across our schools with sports clubs. Uptake of these morning clubs has been very high and we have noticed that they tend to generate excitement amongst children who are ordinarily reluctant to attend school. With a worrying national trend of unauthorised absences from school showing no signs of decreasing (up to 17.2% in 2022/23 for primary schools), measures such as our morning clubs can encourage and excite children about coming to school.

Exercise can also encourage children to regulate their emotions; any measure to help our pupils enter the classroom feeling settled, focused and ready to for their day ahead is something we champion. Research suggests that morning exercise has   1 numerous cognitive benefits for children , and our own experience at LEO Academy Trust confirms this thinking; our teachers consistently report a positive effect on behaviour in the classroom. It also has the benefit of granting access to sports clubs to pupils who might be unable to attend in the afternoons; it is important not to always conflate non-attendance of a sports activity with a lack of interest in attending.

Furthermore, promoting positive role models are fundamental in encouraging schoolchildren to get more active and involved in sport. We have been privileged to give our own pupils the chance to see their sporting heroes in action, such as watching Wimbledon tennis matches and seeing the Lionesses play. Whilst these large-scale events are indeed inspiring, access to role models can be even more inspiring. Through effective sports coaching, partnering with local sports teams or even championing past pupils who have gone on to achieve in sports at a high level, schools can provide children with role models that can inspire them to achieve.

Improving representation in sport is key to improving participation in sport. Pupils need to see themselves reflected in their role models, be that on the pitches at school or the pitches of the world stage. For girls in particular, celebrating the success of the Lionesses as well as the rugby and cricket teams on a global platform is critical if we are to overcome the stubborn participation gaps in sport.

The World Health Organisation has found the vast majority of teenage girls do not meet the minimum threshold for activity. We also know that girls drop off from playing sport at a much earlier age and in greater numbers than boys. The primary school age window is key to keeping all pupils, especially girls, involved in sport and exercises throughout their lives

Female coaches help young girls to feel more confident as they play sports with their presence helping to dismantle stereotypical tropes around sport and who should be participating. A key element with regard to this has been increasing our female coaching representation to help ensure that the girls can see themselves reflected in their role models. Our sports coaches are also involved in a wide range of sporting activity outside of school, providing a real-life example of how women can be active into adulthood.

The greater the diversity in sports leadership, the more everyone benefits from different perspectives and styles of instruction. This can only have a positive effect in keeping as many children as possible involved in sports and enjoying their sporting education.

Inspiring schoolchildren also means ensuring that all pupils, regardless of ability, can access and enjoy sports. This must include providing pupils with SEND physical exercise in a way that suits their level of needs as well as their own interests. The benefits of physical activity for children with SEND are particularly clear – from improving balance and coordination skills, to increasing strength, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, and supporting the regulation of energy levels.

A seemingly minor change we have made to our school days is the introduction of ‘movement breaks’ in the classroom. At appropriate moments, teachers intersperse academic learning with brief bursts of physical activity for their pupils – whether some simple stretches, a quick walk around the school grounds, or even a mini ‘dance party’.

These breaks are beneficial for all (including our teachers), but particularly for neurodiverse pupils. Teachers have noticed an improvement in classroom behaviour and attention since the introduction of these breaks, as pupils are given an appropriate opportunity to channel any excess energy. It also has the added benefit of teaching our pupils how to deal with moments of agitation, frustration or over-stimulation through the benefits of exercise; a lesson that all children can carry with them throughout their lives.

Every child – regardless of ability level – should be supported to enjoy the benefits of team sports, such as boosting confidence, improving communication skills and building friendships. We have tried to extend these benefits to our SEND pupils by embracing adapted sports such as sitting volleyball.

Our Trust has also been involved with organisations such as the Panathlon Challenge, giving our SEND pupils the chance to try a wide array of sports whilst providing a clear goal of acquiring skills and ensuring that they aren’t excluded from the joys and challenges of competition. A healthy level of competition teaches some childhood’s most fundamental lessons; fairness, focus and the ability to deal with difficult emotions, such as nervousness or disappointment.

It must always be recognised that not all sports will be of interest to all children, and where possible, introducing pupils to a range of sports allows them to choose one that appeals to them, on a level appropriate to their needs and interests.

Whilst it can be tempting as educators to keep our sights set on the highest possible level of achievement, dreaming of a stuffed trophy cabinet, gold medals and World Championships, what matters more is ensuring our pupils can all access the benefits of sports and physical activity. Not only is it an important part of ensuring we have a community of happy and engaged learners, but it is also vital to building healthy future.

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