‘My whole career has been creating opportunities for children and young people’

Rebecca Skinner, Active Devon partnerships manager, tells Caitlin Bowring how the government-led School Games programme is changing young lives through school sport and encouraging girls to be strong

So far this year, up to 211,000 children and young people have become more physically active and gained life skills through the School Games initiative, a government-led programme delivered by children’s charity the Youth Sport Trust.

Rebecca Skinner, partnerships manager at Active Devon, is the strategic lead for School Games in the Devon area and has been involved with the programme almost since its inception in 2010.

The School Games Organisers (SGOs) she manages are funded by the Department of Health and Social Care and the National Lottery through Sport England to deliver the School Games programme in schools for three days a week. Outside of this, many SGOs also work as teachers, within School Sport Partnerships or in other roles in sport and schools.

The Schools Games programme has actively engaged with special education needs or disability (SEND) and from ethnically diverse communities (14% and 16%, respectively), driving equal opportunities to access sport and physical activity.

The School Games is a wonderful vehicle for providing high-quality opportunities for young people

“My whole career has been creating opportunities for children and young people,” Rebecca says.

“The School Games is a great mechanism to be able to do that. We’ve got this wonderful vehicle to be able to provide high-quality opportunities for young people, so that they enjoy physical activity and movement, and then are inspired to take it on and do it in later life.”

A ‘keen bean’

Rebecca, who used to work for England netball, grew up active and, in her own words, was a ‘keen bean’ who joined every sports team possible at school. Now working with the School Games, she sees it her mission to provide opportunities for children who aren’t naturally inclined towards sport and to help them find a sport or activity that works for them.

The initiative also works to keep those naturally sporty children motivated and make sure they continue activity throughout their lives, whether they join sports clubs or go on to compete at high levels.
The focus of the programme isn’t just on the activity, says Rebecca, it’s also about the positive impact that sport has on mental health and overall wellbeing.

“We’ve absolutely done our children a disservice if they leave school and haven’t found something that they enjoy. Our role with the School Games is to make sure that every young person, regardless of their background, gets the opportunity to fall in love with something.”

2022 has been a good year for female athletes – the Lionesses winning the Euros in July and at the Commonwealth Games: for the first time ever in a major multi-sport event, women were competing for more medals than men.

“That narrative around girls being strong is really changing which I think is really positive,” says Rebecca, adding that she herself came to weight training as an adult and “can’t get over how much better my life feels” when she’s strong.

“It’s really empowering and we’re just not necessarily told that as girls.”


Drop-off in sports participation

Despite this, Rebecca still sees girls becoming more self-conscious in front of their peers as they get older, with the clothes they wear and how much effort they put into sport and activity. On average, girls take part in less activity than boys, and girls’ participation drops off considerably by the time they reach secondary school.

An added hurdle for all pupils is exam season – many children forgo sport for extra cramming despite the positive mental health affects activity has.

She’s seen the School Games evolve in a “really positive way” since it began, and has shifted from a very competition-focused organisation to one that focuses on helping individual young people find an activity that “makes them feel good”, improves mental health and behaviour at school, particularly in light of the pandemic. Lockdowns and disrupted school schedules only exacerbated existing challenges that young people were facing.

Though, Rebecca says, there’s “absolutely nothing wrong with organising a netball match and having a cracking time”.

Rebecca Skinner, Active Devon partnerships manager


Developing leadership skills & career aspirations

This September, the programme will be joining with the Heart of the South West Careers Hub to set up a new project working with children from alternative provision schools and special schools – the types of young people who ‘wouldn’t necessarily traditionally have been picked for these opportunities’. The focus will be on developing their leadership skills and career aspirations through physical activity leadership, achieving a Sports Leadership Award, and running sports festivals for peers at school.

Our role with the School Games is to make sure that every young person, regardless of their background, gets the opportunity to fall in love with something

“We’re trying to widen the pool of young leaders because giving young people a sense of responsibility, and belief that they can lead peers, is really strong and can have a massive difference.
“It’s a really privileged position to be working on the School Games programme. We’re giving drops of joy every day, which is a bit cheesy, but yeah!”

School Games recognises that whilst some young people thrive in competitive environments and should be encouraged to continue taking part in them, there’s also a whole raft of young people who would be put off by intense competition.

One tactic the initiative uses is encouraging the children to beat themselves, and be the ‘best you’, whether they’re doing a solo sport or acting in a team.

Sports clubs for all

The primary aim of Active Devon, Rebecca says, is “all about how to support clubs providing opportunities for the disadvantaged people within their local community, to make sure that sports clubs aren’t just for the affluent members of the community, that they can be for everyone”.

“I think with everything in life we can get really bogged down with how far we’ve got left to go in terms of equality. In terms of disability, in terms of low-income families, in terms of girls, there’s still such a long way to go. But it’s really important to stop sometimes and celebrate where we’ve come.”

You might also like: Interview: John Patterson, director of sport, Christ College


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