Using sport and physical activity to tackle the attainment gap

The shocking reality is that many children from deprived backgrounds do significantly worse at all stages in the education system than children from less deprived communities. The National Literacy Trust reported in 2015 that by the age of five children from the poorest families are already on average 15 months behind children from the richest families in their vocabulary. Meanwhile, GCSE results from 2019 show that only 46% of disadvantaged pupils achieved grade 4 in English and mathematics, compared to 72% of non-disadvantaged pupils, an attainment gap of 26 percentage points. The causes are undoubtedly complex and deep-rooted. However, every initiative to tackle the problem is worthy of consideration. New research published by Cambridge University indicates that a greater emphasis on physical activity could boost academic attainment and help to close the gap between wealthy and less advantaged pupils.

The study, which analysed data from more than 4,000 children in England, suggests that “those who do more physical activity are likely to have stronger ‘self-regulation’ — the ability to keep themselves in check — and in particular may find it easier to control their emotions at an earlier age. Physical activities which promote self-control in this way, such as swimming or ball sports, also have positive, knock-on effects for academic attainment.”

Fotini Vasilopoulos, who led the study, said: “The attainment gap is a really complex problem, but we know that some of it is linked to less advantaged children having poor self-regulation skills early in childhood. Physical activities that help them to do things like focus on a task or maintain attention could be part of the way to bridge that gap.”

Dr Michelle Ellefson, reader in cognitive science at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education and a co-author of the study, warns policymakers to resist the temptation to encourage schools to maximise classroom time to make up for lost learning as a result of the Covid pandemic: “This study is saying ‘think again’, because playtime and PE lessons benefit the mind in ways that children really need in order to do their best.”

Dr Ellefson’s comments reflect advice from a group of child development experts, which we highlighted in February, to put outdoor play at the heart of children’s recovery.

The authors’ suggestion that schools might build links with sports clubs to create targeted programmes for disadvantaged children ties in with life-based learning’s focus on schools working in partnership with the local community to enrich the curriculum.

Evidence that wealthier children get more exercise than poorer children has been highlighted by Sport England. Its 2019 survey of more than 130,000 children aged 5 to 16 found that only 42% of children from low-income homes do the recommended 60 minutes’ exercise a day compared with 54% of children from better-off homes.

Life-based learning recognises the importance of sport, physical activity and outdoor play in helping children to grow up physically and mentally healthy. The Body is one of nine learning themes that make up life-based learning. Its approach to health and wellbeing combines a focus on children learning how to look after themselves with a coordinated, whole-school focus on physical activity. A central feature of a life-based Body learning programme is a guaranteed 60 minutes of daily exercise for every child.

We also recently highlighted the Youth Sport Trust’s four-year strategy to promote sport, play and physical activity as a means of enhancing young people’s wellbeing. One of its six objectives is: ‘Transform PE’s place in the curriculum, putting it at the centre of wellbeing and achievement in education.’

Youth Sport Trust was established in 1995. It describes itself as “the UK’s leading charity improving every young person’s education and development through sport and play”. It runs a wide range of innovative programmes that support young people to improve health and wellbeing, develop character and leadership, and promote inclusion and empathy. The resources area of its website has a section aimed specifically at primary school PE.

More About Sport and Physical Activity

Image at the head of this article from the Strategy 2018–2022 page of the Youth Sport Trust website.

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