‘Mens sana in corpore sano’?

David Elstone (Hymers College) and Alison Oliver (Chief Executive, Youth Sport Trust) present recent research on the impact of sport on pupils

Images courtesy of Hymers College.

David Elstone

“Have you ever wondered who was responsible for deciding on the very first curriculum for your school? In the case of Hymers College, the first curriculum was put together 126 years ago, and sport was an important part of that curriculum. How incredibly insightful of our predecessors to see that sport and physical exercise are a critical part of a first-class education.

Fast forward to the modern day. I am sure there is not one single Headteacher who has not been asked by a parent why their son or daughter is being ‘forced’ to play sport. Like me, I suspect many of you will have given an answer that highlighted the importance of being part of a team, not to mention the health benefits of building up a bit of a sweat. We might, if we were feeling rather brave, have said something along the lines that sport has a very positive impact on mental health and wellbeing. However, despite searching through many academic journals, I have been surprised to find very little educational research which actually supports these claims – that is until now.

A couple of years ago I had a number of conversations with Heads who had been faced with the parent I mentioned above, and asked if, as a Sports Committee, we might research the impact sport has on our pupils. We agreed to approach Peter Clough, the Head of Psychology at Huddersfield University, to produce a research tool which might give us some answers about the real impact sport has on our students. He not only did this, but also undertook the research, using HMC schools, and has now reported on his findings.

The Youth Sport Trust has expressed its welcome to the findings and now wants to use Peter’s research tool to extend the project into state schools.

Links between sport and wellbeing

The study was designed to investigate possible links between an involvement in sport at school, psychological wellbeing, mental toughness (character) and academic performance. After gaining ethical approval, data was obtained from 1482 Year 12 students from independent schools. There were 60% males and 33% females, with 7% preferring not to say. Nineteen schools took part in this study. All data was fully anonymised.

Information was obtained on: Academic Performance: GCSE’s and MidYIS; Character: Mental Toughness; Psychological Wellbeing; Involvement in Sport and Involvement in other Extracurricular Activities.

One of the key foci for this study was exploring possible links between physical activity and academic performance. Previous research has been equivocal, and this study showed a similar set of findings, showing there was no simple discernible link between physical activity and academic performance.

However, there was a complex link between mental toughness, wellbeing and academic performance. Put simply, the lowest academic performing group of students had the lowest levels of mental toughness and wellbeing.

There was also a significant relationship between involvement in sport and mental toughness, and between involvement in sport and wellbeing. Finally, there was a very strong association between mental toughness and wellbeing.

Bringing the findings together, we can say that an involvement in sport whilst at school is advantageous. It is linked to stronger character development and psychological wellbeing.

Many pupils, but not all, felt that sports participation was related to improvements in school work. This may be an overly positive interpretation of what is actually happening, as there is only limited evidence that involvement in sport has a positive impact on academic performance, but certainly there was no negative impact.

The clear link between mental toughness and wellbeing suggests that character may be a moderator of the observed relationship between sport and wellbeing. The findings also suggest that there are groups which are perhaps particularly vulnerable, for example the ‘Squeezed Middle’ and Poor Performers. An involvement in sport may offer a mechanism to allow these students to reach their full potential and enjoy their lives at school.

In conclusion, this research shows the importance and usefulness of a balanced non-academic portfolio and the particular importance of sport for student wellbeing and character development. These are undoubtedly key outcomes for most educators.

Images courtesy of Hymers College.

Alison Oliver

The Youth Sport Trust is an established and respected national charity which uses the power of sport to change lives. It has been working in partnership with schools for 24 years to improve the quality, value and impact of Physical Education, daily physical activity and school sport. Its work encompasses political and landscape influencing, the development of thought leading programmes and projects, and the creation and inspiration of school networks committed to the development of healthy, active and successful learners. The Youth Sport Trust is currently leading on a number of strategies and programmes on behalf of government and is a member of the Ministerial Board for Physical Education and School Sport.

The Youth Sport Trust strategy ‘Believing in Every Child’s Future’ sets out 6 objectives focussed on transforming the strategic use of play and sport to meet the needs of young people today. Given its work and advocacy around the positioning and intent of a school’s Physical Education and Sport prevision relative to declining levels of student wellbeing (physical, social and emotional), its contribution to education with character, and most recently the role it plays in Personal Development (as outlined within the draft Ofsted Common Inspection Framework), the Youth Sport Trust has warmly welcomed this research.

Influencing policy and practice

One of the charity’s strategy objectives is entitled ‘Championing Insight’. It sets out to strengthen the evidence base and improve the way evidence is shared in order to enhance the credibility and acceptance of sport at the heart of our education system. As such the Youth Sport Trust will now be taking forward this HMC commissioned report, extending its reach to the maintained sector and using it to influence policy and practice in the future. In light of the Secretary of State’s intention to launch a new School Sport Action Plan in the spring, and recent announcements about the Foundations of Character, the Youth Sport Trust will be positioning the findings of this research against both these agendas and, in doing so, ensuring a broader legacy to the report and its findings.

  • As Sport England’s Active Lives research has shown, too many young people are missing out on the life-changing benefits of sport and play, particularly girls and those from less affluent backgrounds.

  • PE, sport and physical activity have an essential role to play in a good and well-rounded education - enhancing children’s health, building character, improving wellbeing and supporting them to fulfil their potential.

  • We need a radical shift in our approach to Physical Education and youth sport and a long-term, joined-up and ambitious approach to unlocking the benefits of sport and play for all young people. This must be the aim of Government’s School Sport Action Plan.