Tennis is transforming lives in Tower Hamlets where the sport really matters

Jim White
The Telegraph
A St Paul's Way pupil enjoys his time on court
A St Paul's Way pupil enjoys his time on court

At St Paul’s Way School, next week is Wimbledon week. They stage their own tournament here, based on events in SW19. Everyone gets involved: some pupils act as ball crew, others do the umpiring, others compete. The canteen serves strawberries and cream.

It is, according to the tennis coach, Christine Dransfield, a highlight of the school calendar. And, as she gives me a guided tour of the splendid floodlit courts that have recently been installed with assistance from the Tennis Foundation, the winner of last year’s Under-12s cup turns up to return his silverware, disappointed that he is now too old to retain it.

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“Winning it was the best thing that’s happened to me,” he says.

This school, incidentally, is not in some leafy suburb. Nor is it a private establishment, with termly fees ending in several zeroes. This is a state academy in the middle of Tower Hamlets, the poorest borough in London; more than 58 per cent of its pupils are entitled to free school meals. But here, the sport more generally associated with exclusivity and wealth is part of the curriculum. Here the game of Serena Williams and Roger Federer is reckoned an engine of social advancement. Here tennis matters.

“When the school was reborn seven years ago, the then head teacher, Grahame Price, wanted to introduce the pupils to things to which they normally wouldn’t have access,” the deputy head teacher, Firdusi Uddin, explains. “He hoped to raise pupils’ aspirations. Tennis was part of that. It started as an experiment and it has been a phenomenal success.”Not that it was easy at first. Dransfield, employed by the sports charity Greenhouse, arrived seven years ago to widespread indifference. Few of the children had any idea what tennis was, never mind had a desire to play it. They preferred football or cricket. And, as this is a school largely drawn from the Bengali community, some parents were reluctant for their girls to get involved in such activity. Besides tennis is not an easy sport for beginners; if you can’t hit the ball over the net and set up a rally, you aren’t going to get much out of it.

But, working before lessons, at lunchtimes and after school, Dransfield soon began to see a difference. The school did too. Those pupils playing the game were demonstrably doing better in the classroom. Soon the head started referring children with behavourial difficulties to Dransfield, in the hope that smacking a ball with a racket might bring about improvement in their wider social interactions. Almost invariably it did.

And some of the players she happened upon turned out to have a real facility for the game. One lad who had never hit a ball before possessed a natural topspin forehand of eye-opening power. He is now, after benefiting from four years of individual coaching, about to go to university to study sports science. Another pupil, who had never even seen anyone play tennis before he arrived at St Paul’s Way, has just won the London schools tournament.

“I’m not saying you’re going to find the next Andy Murray here, that’s not what this is about,” says Dransfield. “But I reckon he is out there in a park somewhere, waiting for someone to hand him a racket and teach him how to hit the ball.”

In the meantime, the children playing before morning lessons at St Paul’s Way have their own explanation as to why every day they line up to thwack a ball around the court.

“Why do I play tennis?” says 12 year old Azir, who, after no more than six months of coaching has developed a sizzling back hand. “Because it’s fun.”

For more information on the impact of Greenhouse Sports, visit https://www.greenhousesports. org/

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