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Calls for school sports rethink after study shows academic boost

February 15 2024 - News Release News Editorial

The lead author of a groundbreaking new study revealing striking links between sports participation and academic success has called for Australian policy-makers to consider expanding mandatory planned physical activity to include older schoolchildren.

Calls for school sports rethink after study shows academic boost

In the first long-term study of its kind, researchers at the University of Sydney followed sports participation of more than 4,000 children aged between four and 13 years old, and then compared the activities with academic trajectories up to the age of 21.

The research found links between continued sports participation and lower absenteeism, better attention and memory, higher NAPLAN annual assessment and end-of-school scores, and a higher likelihood of studying at university.

In Australia, children from kindergarten to year 10, which consists of 15 and 16-year-olds, are required to undertake a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity across the school week. However, schools are only encouraged – and not obliged – to provide year 11 and 12 senior secondary school students with weekly access to the same amount of exercise.

“I think we should consider whether the 150 minutes of planned physical activity (including sport) should be extended to Year 11 and 12,” Dr Katherine Owen, a statistician from the University of Sydney School of Public Health and the lead author of the study, told Global Sustainable Sport.

“This is the age when physical activity and sport declines, and also an important age where being active sets the adolescent up for an active healthy life throughout adulthood.”

The research revealed that participating in team sports and individual sports were beneficial for different aspects of academic performance.

“Investment in sport opportunities and ensuring quality physical education is in place will lead to happy, healthier, and more civically engaged individuals." Dr Graham Spacey, Senior Evaluation and Learning Consultant at inFocus Consulting

Those who participated in team sports performed better than others in terms of attention and working memory, having fewer absent days without permission, and they were more likely to be awarded the Higher School Certificate. According to Dr Owen, these findings are in line with other research that shows how team sports develop important social and mental skills in youngsters.

Meanwhile, children who participated in individual sport reported higher NAPLAN and end-of-school results.

“We suspect this may be because individual sports tend to encourage responsibility, self-reliance, goal setting and a higher level of preparation,” Dr Owen added.

The results of the new study are in line with an earlier systematic review led by Dr Owen in 2022 that analysed 115 international papers, totalling more than one million students, and found a positive link between sports participation and academic performance.

The latest study, entitled ‘Sport Participation for Academic Success: Evidence From the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children’, was published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.

Commenting on the study, Dr Graham Spacey, Senior Evaluation and Learning Consultant at inFocus Consulting, told Global Sustainable Sport: “Being active goes beyond simply benefiting physical health and contributes to a range of outcomes vital for the holistic development of a child – physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally.

“Investment in sport opportunities and ensuring quality physical education is in place will lead to happy, healthier, and more civically engaged individuals – something most governments want but fail to provide adequate policy, infrastructure, and resources for. Those that do often fail to measure the impact appropriately, if at all.

“This research adds to the increasing evidence that being active and having access to quality physical education and sport at school contributes significantly to overall academic attainment and education-related outcomes.”

Image: Acton Crawford on Unsplash

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