GEMS schools have forged an impressive reputation for excellence in the classroom and are now, with the help of sport providers ESM, looking to use sport as an integral part of their offering with a new Centre of Excellence program.  Here, Brendan Law, GEMS Vice President – British Cluster Lead, and Paul Lightbody, ESM’s Commercial Director, explain why sport and education are complementary.

What is the GEMS Centre of Excellence program? 

Paul Lightbody: The Centre of Excellence (COE) is an holistic solution geared towards creating the ultimate sporting environment for athletes to reach their potential at the highest level and to encourage participation in physical activity at every level.

A Centre of Excellence program is a platform that provides leadership, research, development pathways, partnerships, support and training in a focused sporting discipline delivering coaching of fundamental movement and skills in activities which are accessible, affordable and inclusive.  It is the driving force to motivate students to engage in physical activities as a part of their everyday life and promotes good habits which will continue throughout their lifetime.

Brendan Law: The COE will strive for a culture of excellence offering each school a unique identity to attract and nurture talent.  By combining an education syllabus and a high quality sports program alongside the school timetable and additional required study times, it will offer flexibility and accessibility for all students from grassroots to elite athletes.

Which sports are you focusing on and why? 

PL: As you can imagine we have started with the more popular or mainstream sports including football, rugby, swimming and cricket, although we have no intention of stopping there.  Our long term plans are to include a wide variety of sports which showcases the school facilities, maximizes the expertise of staff and meets the popularity among students as well as providing exciting opportunities to enhance a student’s school experience and their future career.

BL: We aim to be inclusive and encourage participation across all ages groups for boys and girls and plan to branch out into other sports that may be considered slightly niche.  For example; GEMS National School for Girls and GEMS National Schools for Boys in Al Barsha will be home to our newly launched ESM Fencing Academy.

GEMS and ESM Centre of Excellence Fencing

We also want to focus on female participation in sports and are encouraged by the initiatives taking place in the UAE to promote healthier lifestyles and inclusion.

Do you have any other sports in mind to focus on in the future? 

PL: We are currently planning to implement an Athletics COE in January at GEMS World Academy with the help of some of the most talented athletes form the UK. That would mean our offering would include GEMS Heritage School (cricket), GEMS Wellington Academy Silicon Oasis (rugby), GEMS Wellington Academy Al Khail (swimming) and GEMS AL Barsha National School for Girls and GEMS AL Barsha National School for Boys (fencing). Jiu Jitsu is also in the pipeline as several schools have expressed an interest in these sports and are very excited to be a part of it.

What role does sport have in education?

BL: We firmly believe in the healthy body, healthy mind philosophy. Sports is a critical part of a child’s education and development.  Participating in individual and team sports provide essential life lessons that simply cannot be taught in a classroom.   Around the world we are all too aware of the health related issues that stem from poor diets and lack of exercise and encouraging regular activity not only improves fitness and general well-being, but also develops team spirit and feelings of accomplishment.  If you find a sport that you love, stick with it and you will reap positive long term rewards.

Why are clear sporting pathways needed here in the UAE?

PL: There is already a large talent pool in the UAE which we want to attract into sports programs which offer a development pathway for every level.  The sports federations work hard to support talented students and we feel we can encourage higher participation from an earlier age to help them to identify more athletes with the potential to represent the UAE in the future.

BL: We have also found that when children leave school, they are choosing to move to other countries to attend colleges and universities, particularly if they want to pursue a career in sport.  Similarly if families are new to the UAE and have children who have previously been involved in sports, we want to ensure they have several options available to them in order to continue training in their chosen discipline here in the UAE.

How is ESM involved in this initiative? 

PL: For ESM its part of our DNA.  In order to keep encouraging, attracting and nurturing talent, we must continue to offer world class facilities and programs that are delivered by professionals.  As the UAE sporting landscape continues to evolve, so must we.  We aim to meet the needs of all students and offer opportunities in an environment catered specifically for them so they can stay in the UAE to make the most of the academic and sporting opportunities being provided.  The Government of the UAE and private sector has created some fantastic facilities and we want to help develop the talent.

We aim to offer pathways for all and feel higher participation in sports means we can provide more talented athletes, offer larger sports tournaments and events which in turn will attract more international athletes and opportunities to the UAE.

GEMS are a leader in education in the region and understand the value of sport in a child’s development.  ESM have worked with a number of GEMS Schools over the last 12 years delivering after school sports and have recently analyzed the sporting landscape and provision available.  We quickly identified the need to provide a focus for schools with great sport facilities and with the expertise among the staff and desire among students, several schools have opted in to the concept with ideas on their preferred sport.

Has anything like this been tried before? 

BL: Similar initiatives have been successful in other parts of the world and one or two schools in the UAE have certainly built a reputation for being good at a particular sport however I don’t feel anything has been offered from an early age, encouraging inclusion for all ages and abilities and offering professional and affordable programs.

How will you judge the success of the program?

BL: As the COE programs are new, they will take time to develop, however we will be closely monitoring the progress and identifying successes so we continually improve in order to meet the needs of every student.  A COE is not just about gold medals at the Olympics or world championships. Of course that would be great, but realistically it takes a lot of time so we want to ensure there is a solid foundation in place to continue to build on.

PL: ESM’s view is that the COE must be seen as a long term strategy which advocates healthy lifestyles and promotes inclusion.  We have various criteria that we look at to measure the success which includes implementation at grassroots level and participation and retention levels of students within the program.