Building confidence, discovering talents, making memories

Hamid Patel CBE, Chief Executive of Star Academies

Extra-curricular activities are so much more than an optional extra for our children.

What do you remember best about school?

Chances are that your first thoughts won’t be solving algebraic expressions or reciting vocabulary lists.

Like many people, unless your whole school life was unremittingly terrible, you might recall the great feeling of making new friends, playing for a school team, appearing on the stage, attending the prom or being involved in a social action project.

Schools offer so much more than the formal curriculum. They build confidence, shape attitudes and help our children to find their own unique talents.

During the first national lockdown, when schools were closed to the vast majority of pupils, the spotlight turned to the amazing job parents were doing in keeping their children engaged and learning within the restrictions placed on ‘normal life.’ Home baking saw a resurgence and many families enjoyed natural habitats together, played games, solved puzzles and took up new creative hobbies. Now that children have returned to the classroom and families have resumed their working lives, extra-curricular activities have slowly begun to restart. We need these activities more than ever. For some of our most disadvantaged pupils, school may be the only place in which they can experience enriching opportunities on a par with their classmates.

At Star, we have five leadership foundations through which we aspire to fulfil our mission to nurture today’s young people and inspire tomorrow’s leaders. We aim for all our pupils to have opportunities beyond their timetabled lessons to engage in sports, arts, creative activities, social enterprise and opportunities linked to their career aspirations. This programme ranges from an exciting menu of sports activities through to digital programming and extensive charitable work. Some of our schools run well-supported Scout groups or Combined Cadet Forces. Whatever provision schools make, it is designed to encourage pupils to develop their skills and interests whilst having fun and establishing friendships that will sustain them through whatever challenges they may face.

Obviously, schools and providers have to adhere to stringent Government guidance: maintaining ‘bubbles’, observing distance and insisting on scrupulous hygiene routines are parameters by which our lives will continue to be led for the foreseeable future. The logistical challenges of organising events outside the school day whilst juggling staff availability, cleaning rotas and movement around the school site are not to be under-estimated. Nonetheless, schools are working creatively to ensure that the memories of the class of 2020 are not all about sanitiser and face-coverings.

So, while orchestras may not be able to play in the way they used to for this year’s concerts, schools continue to work with local authority music services to make adaptations so that the fun of performance is not lost. Rugby scrums may be off limits for now but at a time when Ofsted has reported that pupils’ physical health may have deteriorated during lockdown, schools  are building in individual challenges and exercise programmes that place keeping fit high on the agenda. At one Star school, a girls’ boxing club has been set up in response to pupils’ requests.

Our schools’ young journalists and editorial times continue to collaborate on the production of their school magazines: technology enables them to do this safely and the essence of teamwork hasn’t been sacrificed. During lockdown, primary pupils contributed to a virtual art gallery and secondary pupils created a Stars of Hope poetry anthology. These were amazing cross-Trust initiatives and they have continued to inspire pupils in their own schools to form communities of readers, writers and artists.

Breakfast clubs have resumed. These enable working parents to start their day on time and provide pupils with a nourishing meal, but they achieve so much more. Children get to meet their friends and play board games before the day starts. True, their social interaction is restricted to their bubble and the ubiquitous sanitizer is close by, but they are talking, laughing and enjoying life.

The annual Festive Winter Gift programme is a hallmark of Star life, through which schools provide generous support to their local communities. Our pupils work creatively to find ways of donating gifts and showing their thoughtfulness to people of all ages who are experiencing difficulties. 2020 may be more challenging, but the flame of philanthropy burns bright. At one high school where pupils usually engage in a mass sponsored sleep out to support their city’s homeless population, the event has moved online and the pupils are replicating it for themselves in ingenious ways. Our choirs may not be able to visit care homes this year to sing for their residents, but they can stay in touch ‘remotely’ and engage in good old-fashioned letter writing to brighten other people’s days.

We are confident that 2021 will be better and that the vibrancy that is characteristic of our schools will be redoubled. In the meantime, it is essential we don’t jettison extra-curricular activities simply because of the difficulties that arranging them entails. Our schools’ programmes support young people to develop confidence, skills and talents. They are also a vital component within our toolkit to support mental and physical well-being. We know from research published by the Education Endowment Foundation that disadvantaged pupils have suffered disproportionately during lockdown. For them, the extra-curricular activities offered by school are an essential, not a luxury. We have a moral imperative to ensure that national restrictions do not impede young people’s creativity or life chances. We want them to look back on their school days when covid is consigned to history and know that we went the extra mile on their behalf.