How non-academic activities can increase children’s academic focus

Pursuing excellence in the sporting arena is not for the faint-hearted. It means training – a lot of training – and once girls get closer to the critical exam years some parents feel it’s too much of a commitment. They worry their gifted athlete daughter should be dialling back her sporting participation to focus on her academic studies. New evidence suggests she may not have to choose. There is increasing evidence that doing more sport and performing arts activities increases children’s academic focus. The latest census from the Independent Schools Council (ISC) highlights a number of fascinating correlations that are difficult to ignore.

The census shows that children in independent schools not only take part in sports more than twice as frequently as their state school counterparts, they are also more likely to do well in STEM and MFL subjects, even allowing for prior ability and socio-economic status. They are also more likely to study many of these difficult subjects in the first place. For example, in French and Further Maths, independent schools enter nearly twice as many candidates, proportionately, as state schools. The census also tells us that students in independent schools spend an average four to five hours a week engaged in sport activities. This compares to less than two hours a week nationally.

Recently it was reported that a study by the NatCen social research agency in collaboration with Newcastle University and ASK Research, found that swimming classes help primary school children do better at Maths. So much better, that they are one and a half times more likely to reach higher than expected grades in their end-of-school Maths test. The study puts the link down to the sense of achievement and enhanced social skills the children get from swimming together.

At my own school, we notice all the time that our most committed rowers also excel academically. Not only have 104 of Headington’s rowers, so far, represented GB at some stage in their rowing career but they are also among our highest achievers in the classroom. Currently two former Headington rowers are on rowing scholarships at Duke and Yale universities in the USA while others have achieved As and A*s across the board. In our experience, there is definitely a link between being fully committed to school life and its many extra activities and doing well academically. It’s one of the reasons so many independent schools expect their teachers to run extra-curricular activities as well as teach. While rowing, like other extra-curricular activities, is a big time commitment, it teaches innumerable skills – time management, focus, how to deal with both success and failure. To be able to continue as rowers they must demonstrate they are achieving their academic potential – and this provides a huge incentive to do well. They work hard, train hard and play hard.

There are countless studies that show the link between physical activity and mental well-being. The more alert and generally motivated you are, the more likely you are to engage with formal learning. Of course, doing more sport in school has another benefit. It helps to tackle childhood obesity.

It is my belief that if you are in a girls’ school you are more likely to remain fit and healthy and continue with a sport once you leave school – a lifelong benefit. I have also noticed that girls are much more inclined to throw themselves wholeheartedly into sport when they’re not feeling self-conscious about having to sit in a class full of boys after they have spent an hour exerting themselves on the hockey pitch. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any research done on obesity or physical activity in girls’ schools relative to other schools but it would certainly be an interesting area to explore.

Sport is particularly beneficial but the children who throw themselves into other activities are often high fliers too. It’s by no means unusual to find that the girl on track for a clutch of As and A*s is the same girl who pops up in the choir, on the debating team, in the lead role in the school play and at the forefront of house activities. While enthusiastic teenagers can sometimes spread themselves too thinly but, all other things being equal, the more engaged they are in life beyond the classroom, the more attentive and successful they tend to be academically.

It’s a formula at which the independent sector is particularly good. Perhaps Exam success = sport + singing + other fun stuff should be up there along with E = mc2!


Caroline Jordan, President of the Girls’ Schools Association and Head of Headington School, Oxford

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