In a priority neighbourhood, one of the first things to be left behind at a time of austerity can be status.
In my area of Bristol, once famed for its engineering and manufacturing through prestigious giants like Rolls Royce and British Aerospace, everyone’s sense of self takes a hit when jobs are lost and perceptions of a neighbourhood can become tainted.
The challenge of trying to deliver education in this kind of situation is familiar to many teachers and leaders across the country. Schools can struggle to square attainment and progress with developing young people who have the character and determination so valued by the government. In schools with falling rolls, budgets can be stretched to a point where little is left for meaningful extras.
At Patchway Community College on the edge of Bristol, times have been tough for us and a recent Ofsted report has been particularly disheartening. However, the school has found that the introduction of Olympic Weight Lifting as a planned intervention over the last three years is something to be proud of. The programme has produced numerous stories of young people finding a niche which can bring a vision of themselves as capable, unique and resilient teenagers who can achieve more that they thought they were capable of. Students come out of one lesson a week to be coached, and have the option of additional sessions at lunchtimes and after school. Importantly it seems to be a sustainable model.
How Weightlifting Has Helped
Fiona is originally from Hungary and experienced some difficult times when she came to the school. She used to lose her temper frequently with other students. Now she says “if someone annoys me I don’t get angry anymore because I know I will have Weightlifting and I know after that I will be relaxed’. She trains almost every day, helps the coaches with younger students and has a very different attitude to school; managing her emotions and having a real identity. She is aiming for a future career in coaching.
As Deputy Head with an inclusion responsibility I first considered a weight lifting programme after meeting charismatic British record-holder Bradley Burrowes about five years ago. He is something of a Bristol legend. We used to take individual students from Patchway who were on the brink of permanent exclusion to the famous Empire Gym in St Pauls to work with Bradley. We saw how the sport had potential for students who were lost. It was just them and the bar, and the sense of accomplishment; not from the weights they lifted, but the technique they were mastering was highly tangible. Mixing with strong but compassionate adults was also a significant element of the recipe, as it was then. But for these students the programme often came too late and was a sticking plaster over some serious issues of disaffection, drug-use and mental health problems. The sport was clearly motivational for some extremely hard-to-reach students, and we wondered how it would be if the scheme was something that students could only do once they had already started to turn their behaviour around, instead of a last throw of the dice. We also thought that a range of student needs around confidence and resilience could be met-but this was a gut feeling based on a small sample of youngsters.
So, and crucially, with the consent of my Headteacher and our Governors; and a small grant from the Patchway High School Enrichment Trust, a room was converted into the first weightlifting gym. Within the first year, 100 students had learned Olympic Weightlifting. A buzz began to spread that the disused classroom at the far end of the school had something cool going on in it. People saw Bradley come in wearing his England tracksuit, walk through the corridor and disappear through a doorway. It was intriguing! This became our internal publicity tool.
Bradley works in a secure unit for young people and knows the benefits of weightlifting from a hugely successful career in the sport which also helps. He was the inspiration and his profile was the hook for students, initially. I asked him how he remembers the beginning of the programme.
He says, “I can remember the conversation we had before I went away to compete in the 2014 Commonwealth Games. We knew that after the Games there would be no more Empire gym and you asked if I would be interested in coaching at the school if you could put a gym together in a disused class room. This sounded like a great opportunity for the students and an honour for me, but I was slightly unsure if it would actually happen for various reasons.
“To my surprise that phone call came whilst I was still in Glasgow, only a day or 2 after I’d competed telling me “It’s done”; and the gym was ready if I was still up for the challenge. My instant reaction was ‘Wow, this man is serious” and that felt good to know that Patchway Community College had belief and could see the benefits of my sport. By the start of the new term I started the programme and within weeks it took off. The feedback I was getting from everyone was great. In the short space of time that this programme has been running the change that I have seen in all of the students was outstanding. This programme is now 100% proven that it builds character, confidence, maturity, team Work, self esteem and self worth. As a result, the students at Patchway Community College have given me the drive to continue my work with more young people making a positive contribution to their lives”
The original gym was half the size of a normal room and furbished with horse stable mats, equipment from coaches houses and with any bars and weights that were on discount via Amazon. At the end of the first year a ‘knock though’ was agreed and the gym doubled in size. Our students gave up their time to decorate the Patchway Community College Weight Lifting Club and the vision that we had first discussed at the Empire became real.
The gym is not pristine or salubrious but that was never the intention. Dr Dweck would approve of the growth mindset and sweat flying around in a ‘spit and sawdust’ environment. But students are clear about what is expected of them. Connor in Year 9 reminded me; ‘I couldn’t be on the weightlifting programme at the start of this year because my achievement points weren’t high enough’.
Frank, by his own admission was once one of the most challenging boys in his year. Now he is a real leader and vying for the school’s ‘best lifter’ title. He also has one of the highest achievement points totals in the year, and mentors a young weightlifter in Year 7. “Weightlifting is the place I feel myself and it makes school a place I want to be. I’m helping a Year 7 boy to understand he needs to eat properly because he has a lot of potential. I know he looks up to me so hopefully he will listen to my advice”
Last summer Patchway Community College held its first club championships. Sixty students took part and at our awards presentation two Olympians Sonny Webster –who also used to work with our ‘originals’ at the Empire – and Gareth Evans and came to present medals and certificates, and to explain what the sport means to them. It is clear that the sport can work for the school on many levels.
Developing the confidence of vulnerable students adds another layer to the programme. The old perception of weight lifting stunting your growth has luckily been replaced by a scientific understanding that it can help adolescent development, strengthen bones and connective tissues and reduce injuries picked up in other sports. Our younger students work purely on technique and are not allowed to add weight to the bar until they are more than proficient. Dean is in Year 8 and has a Child in Need Plan. He now helps deliver sessions to Year 7 students. He has a great coaching eye and can give really accurate cues and corrections to others. As well as well as weightlifting in school he trains himself out of school and comes in early in the mornings to tell us what he did the previous night. I asked him to explain how a Technique Competition works. “You watch the lifter and you have 8 points to award. You know what a perfect lift should look like in your head and you compare. You take half a mark off for anything you see that is not right such as a leg being too straight or elbow’s not being high enough in the clean. Then you have to explain the score you give the lifter and then help them to put it right before their next lift”.
To maintain delivery of our programme we trained one of our Learning Mentors as a coach through the British Weight Lifting Association and when he left, his replacement instantly took up the offer to do the same. We coach groups of new students on the basics and once they are ready Bradley assesses them. Those whose technique is solid enough ‘graduate’ to his Thursday groups. Our first Year 11 student will soon be old enough to train as a coach so we foresee sixth formers doing some of the interventions in the future alongside staff.
Strategically, some students have been included whose influence could be significant. Assistant Head, Sean Canavan; a PE teacher turned maths teacher explains. ”we have targeted many individuals and for many different reasons. We have had perhaps one or two where weightlifting has not been right for them, but in some extreme situations we have been amazed at the turnaround in individuals. We have a couple of current students who were close to permanent exclusion where their behaviour is now rarely an issue. More significantly we have students flagged up to us with multiple vulnerabilities who have developed a sense of purpose and determination which could carry them through to post 16. A few staff would happily open up the club to the community at weekends if we could secure funding as the nearest weightlifting facilities are beyond some of our families’ mobility.
“Weightlifting is not the only creative intervention at the school. Twice a week an artist who has worked for Disney, Matt Jeanes, comes in to work with groups. His skills have unlocked many talented artists and proved more enlightening that many direct forms of Art therapy we have tried in the past. We are also one of the few schools in the country to have its own Boxing/ Kickboxing club. In a similar vein to weightlifting this started from scratch and on a shoestring because of the passion of Lloyd Lewis (a former world kickboxing champion) and Nige Burr our Senior Learning Mentor.
For the theorists we would tip a nod to Maslow, as the sense of belonging and support of others and the certainty of accomplishment are unquestionable. We can see it daily in our students. For those who get involved in coaching their younger peers; the intricate observation, analysis and evaluation skills that students like Dean demonstrate when they assist the coaches emulates the higher echelons of Blooms taxonomy. That should be a way in for most leaders at their SLT and Governors’ meetings.
I suppose our message is that whatever disheartening baggage the world of education throws at us, we have a vocation which we have chosen. This means ‘leave no one behind’; in human terms not Attainment 8 terms. But oddly and at the same time obviously, the two go hand in hand. And for the youngsters growing up in an increasingly detached world it is the most grounding of activities and a great story for them to tell. Over a quarter of Patchway students have now tried weightlifting at some point. Many move on to conventional gym training to keep fit, some continue with another sport and some have decided it’s just not for them. But for those who are on the programme it gives them a wonderful answer to a simple question. “What do you do?” “I’m a weight lifter”.
**Further reading "Should My Child Be Lifting?"**