As you might gather from the title, this isn’t a race report. Sorry. It is about running though. This is the story of a headteacher, a Jerry Maguire moment and a plan to save education: by running. This is my story.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a primary school teacher. I’ve worked in three different schools over the last seventeen years and, somehow, about six years ago, I bluffed my way to headship. I’ve been Headteacher at Cedars Primary School ever since.
It is, without doubt, a complete privilege to be a headteacher. It’s also an enormous rollercoaster of a journey, from which it can be very hard to switch off (hence my own running obsession). When I say I work in a primary school, most people will have an image in their head of what that place looks like. Invariably this image will be based on people’s own experience of primary school, so allow me to add a little context – it might surprise you.
Ours is a split-site school, with 507 children on roll. Almost a third of our children are entitled to free school meals (an indication of poverty) and over 100 of our pupils have a special educational need. The vast majority of our children are of Asian heritage, but our pupils come from all over the world and speak a total of 25 different languages. Our school also serves a local women’s refuge and at any one time we will be accommodating a number of children who are fleeing the darkest of domestic circumstances. I could share all sorts of other facts and statistics, suffice to say we serve a challenging community in one of the UK’s very poorest council wards.
It’s fair to say, there are moments of great joy in my job and days of darkness and despair. On Friday 4th December last year, those opposing emotions collided in a way I’d never experienced. That morning, we’d held our first ever school running event – a sponsored ‘Reindeer Rumble’ for St Catherine’s Hospice. As you might expect of a runner, this project had been my baby. After several months of planning, and several weeks of rain, the sun came out and the run was declared a wonderful success. The whole school had come out and lined the route – with parents at the start and finish – as 100 of our children ran 1km around school grounds. Christmas music filled the air, staff were dressed as Santa Claus and elves and even a snowman; finishers collected medals, water and freshly baked cake. Our children, aged 4 to 11 had taken part in their first ever organised run. They couldn’t have been more pleased with themselves and we couldn’t have been more proud. And many had caught the running bug, in an instant.
Two hours later, the banners, the marshals’ vests and the cones had all been packed away. I was already pondering other ways of bringing running into school life as I settled down to some of my more usual daily chores. Cue the change of emotion. I foolishly decided to catch up with some mail and it turned out I had a letter from the Department for Education. To be precise, it was from the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb.
Knowing what you do about our Government, you’re probably thinking this was a letter wishing me well at Christmas time and thanking my staff for their fine efforts in working tirelessly to raise standards against the odds. But you’d be wrong. It was a good old-fashioned telling off. A warning. Did I know my school had underperformed in the Year 1 phonics test? Did I know we were in the bottom 3% of schools nationally in this measure? Nick Gibb hoped I had a plan in place to turn things around quickly, otherwise…..
And so it was: my festive reminder that Big Brother was watching. But how to respond to this kick in the teeth? Panic? Cry? Resign? No. Nothing of the sort.
One of the things I’ve observed first-hand over the years is that primary school children are becoming increasingly less healthy and less fit. Many enjoy PE lessons, but even our fittest and most enthusiastic pupils don’t have enough stamina to make it through a school length football match. Meanwhile, in the classroom, children are expected to achieve more, make quicker progress and outperform their predecessors. My own eight year old son (attending a different primary school) is pretty bright and very able, but he simply can’t sit still and his handwriting is awful. His climbing is awesome though and he’s a nippy little runner (especially good at relays…). There is a problem brewing, of epidemic proportions. The nation’s children are being forced to do more – sooner, better, in greater depth, but without the right foundations.
Having had my knuckles wrapped, I decided it was time for a change at Cedars Primary School. We already work tirelessly so our options for satisfying the DfE were limited. The way forward, I decided at that moment, was to equip our children with the right tools to enable them to succeed: as learners, as children and adults. We needed something which would enhance their ability to concentrate and benefit their well-being. And that’s how come you’re reading this particular blog on Red Rose’s website. You see, at the very top of my action plan to raise standards in Year 1 phonics, was one word: RUNNING.
A few months ago, a story made the press about St Ninian’s, a primary school in Stirling which had conceived the idea of ‘The Daily Mile’. This was an event which, as the title suggests, involves pupils running 1 mile everyday at school. One of the reasons their story was achieved national attention was because it emerged that, after three years of running The Daily Mile, there was not one single child in the school who was overweight. An unprecedented achievement!
So, inspired by the story of St Ninian’s, and encouraged by the feedback from our own Reindeer Rumble, I convinced my Senior Leadership Team that it was our turn to make running a daily feature of school life. We’ve done it too. Since February, three of our classes have been trialling what we have imaginatively called ‘The Daily Run’. The staff in these particular classes nominated their children, and their own eagerness was integral to the trial as we needed staff who could enthuse, motivate and be open-minded.
It’s still early days, but for the last two and a half months three classes (a Yr 2, Yr 3 and a Yr5 class) have been completing a 1km run around our school grounds, everyday. It’s spontaneous. It’s fun. It’s a challenge. It’s not a race. It happens whatever the weather (but it’s Blackburn, so it’s mostly in rain). If a lesson’s not quite going to plan, it’s run time. If the children aren’t as attentive as they should be, it’s run time.
Our little running trial will be carrying on throughout the summer term, but I thought I’d share some of the things which have emerged so far. As a teacher, as a parent and as a runner, I’ve been pleasantly surprised.
Firstly, the teacher of our youngest trial class of Year 2 pupils (6 and 7 year olds) has reported unprecedented benefits. After trying the run at different points of the school day, the children and staff have found a natural preference for running in the morning. And so, everyday these children complete their 1km run immediately after the register has been taken. When circumstances mean that it can’t happen then, the children complain. When they do run in the morning, the children return to class and are ready to learn. The class teacher is adamant that the children are already more attentive, more focussed and more enthusiastic about learning as a direct result of their new found fitness. I haven’t dealt with a single behaviour incident in this class for over two months….
In the two older classes, the run is much more spontaneous and the teachers have noted that some children seem to prefer running in the morning whilst others benefit from it more after lunch. Afternoons in primary schools are often the time when behaviour slips and attentiveness wanes. A mid-afternoon run has helped to break up the school day and seems to revitalise our children, and subsequently this is re-focusing them when they return to the classroom for the last part of the day.
Secondly, in all three classes, the children’s fitness levels have already increased dramatically. Irrespective of their age, many children in each of the classes had to walk a significant part of the 1km route at the start of the trial. With no pressure to be first or to be fast, every single child can now complete the distance without stopping. We didn’t set out to find the next Mo Farah, but it is obviously a delight to see our children’s running ability develop so quickly.
Thirdly, there’s been a surprising social benefit and it’s one which is often characteristic of the wider running community: friendship and encouragement. We’ve now reached the point where the children who complete their run first will run a little further and support those who are yet to finish. It’s like the spirit of Red Rose Road Runners and parkrun, and it’s lovely.
Finally, The Daily Run is having an unexpectedly positive impact on the staff who are involved, some of whom have never run as adults. This is almost overwhelming for them. One of my teaching assistants has gone from being a complete novice to now being able to run 6km! She runs at home and she runs after school twice a week, with colleagues. She’s lost 10lbs (!) and says she feels better than she has done in years. “It’s the running”, she says. She wishes she’d discovered it years ago.
It’s too early to say whether The Daily Run will directly impact on our children’s attainment levels. It’s too early to say if the DfE will accept my unorthodox approach to raising standards. But this much I know: running is intrinsically good for us all. In just over two months, we’ve got 80 children running 1 kilometer a day. It’s not a punishment – they crave it!
A solitary, large picture adorns the wall of my office. It’s of the legendary American athlete Steve Prefontaine. His words have become my maxim:
“Success isn’t how far you got, but the distance you travelled from where you started.”