Last weekend saw more than 1,800 athletes from 137 different colleges travel to Tyne and Wear for the 38th AoC Sport National Championships. The pinnacle event in the sporting calendar for AoC Sport member colleges inspired many passionate and high quality performances at first-rate venues, as FE Week reporter and football and golf fanatic Billy Camden found
Making my way up to Newcastle on Friday, I pondered how I could possibly get around to see everything that the AoC Sport National Championships had on show.
Spread across Tyne and Wear this year’s national championships featured 15 different sports, and being a keen sports fan myself I wanted to see them all.
To cater for the breadth of games, they were spread across 10 venues, with some nearly 25 miles apart from each other.
Nevertheless, with a hire car at hand I hit the road.
First up was the cricket — the first time in the national championships history that the sport had been included.
The first thing that hit me was the impressiveness of the venue.
With a first-class clubhouse and beautifully cut pitch, the college competitors were certainly being spoiled at the South Northumberland Cricket Club.
The games themselves were however being played on the equally impressive facilities inside — just as well with the cold, wet and sometimes snowy weather we experienced over the weekend.
I watched a handful of games and got talking with some of the events partners, who told me that this ground was not a one-off and I would continually be impressed with all of the venues across the weekend. They weren’t wrong.
After a quick stop at the volleyball, I was looking forward to the much talked about opening ceremony at Northumbria University.
After arriving at the venue, I was met with a sea of college students and staff who had travelled from all over England, Scotland and Wales.
As I entered the hall, I was taken aback by the sheer noise and electric atmosphere bouncing from wall to wall.
With huge inflatable balls bobbing around and spectators banging their hand clappers, this was definitely something special.
The evening’s compere, Great British gymnast Craig Heap, got proceedings underway.
Among a selfie and then flag design competition — won by the east — were inspiring speeches from England international footballer, Jill Scott, and Great British long jumper, Chris Tomlinson.
They drove home messages of team work, determination and competitiveness that struck a chord with the aspiring athletes.
After emulating the Olympics with the reading of the AoC Sport oaths, Richard Atkins, chair of AoC Sport, declared the event open.
Over the course of Saturday, we got to cover nine different sports including golf, cross country, basketball, netball, squash, swimming, badminton, table tennis and trampolining.
The spectacular venues continued, with my particular favourite being the Close House golf course, where students spotted football legend Alan Shearer the day before (I wasn’t jealous, promise).
What also struck me after watching each sport was the high level of quality on show.
The competitors qualified for the National Championships through regional tournaments, so these players were the best the country’s colleges has to offer.
The whole spirit of the event was brilliant to not only witness, but be a part of.
The banter, competitiveness, sighs of despair, and cheers of victory showed just how much of an impact this competition has on students.
Sunday promised to be another day of sporting brilliance, but with a lot of tension. It was the final day where most gold, silver and bronze medals would be decided.
We got round to the last four sports — football, hockey, rugby and tennis — before heading to the closing ceremony where the last medals were handed out, including the prestigious Wilkinson Sword trophy.
As well as competing in their chosen sport, students battled for points for their region.
The region whose teams and individuals accumulated the most points won the Trophy.
In third place was the West Midlands, in second was the South East, and for the third year in a row the South West were crowned champions.
Thunderous cheers and applause were a fitting way to end a great weekend.
A ‘phenomenal and inspiring’ event
College leaders have spoken of the wider benefits to students’ health and aspirations as a result of investing in sport.
John Evans, principal of Yeovil College, said he believed the wellbeing of learners improved as they engaged in more sport and healthy activities, which also help break down social barriers that can sometimes separate students.
He was speaking to FE Week at the 38th AoC Sport national championships in Tyne and Wear, which students qualified for through regional qualifiers in the autumn term.
Mr Evans, who attended the national championships for the first time this year, said: “It was certainly an eye opener for me to see the sheer scale of it all.
“Seeing students meeting each other from all across the country and competing against the best in the country, I thought was phenomenal and inspiring.”
AoC Sport is a membership organisation launched 18 months ago which campaigns for every college student to participate regularly in sport or physical activity.
Mr Evans said that sport was the single biggest influencer in creating a “well-rounded” student.
“Sport is a big driver in engaging with learning,” he said. “I think that competitiveness and team bonding is extremely strong at my college and nothing has built that better than the sport curriculum.
“It engages people in learning, sets standards and gives them excellent employability skills. The whole thing comes together for me in sport.”
He also said that sporting tournaments, such as this flagship event, are a great way to encourage “all inclusion”.
Richard Atkins, chair of AoC Sport and former principal of Exeter College, said he had students competing in the national championships who had never left their own cities or regions before, “which illustrated the wider social benefits of the sport offer in colleges”.
Mr Evans added: “One of the great things about the FE sector is that we are great for all-inclusion, and I think tournaments like this breaks social barriers.
“I was watching the cross country and you would not know who was coming from what social class.
“Everybody was in it together. The camaraderie between the students was brilliant and the atmosphere was fantastic.
“It gives the students high aspirations and the chance to travel and experience new things.”
Emma Seawood-Adams, team leader for sport at Truro and Penwith College, which recently celebrated after it was the first to be rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted since the introduction of the Common Inspection Framework, agreed with Mr Evans that sport was an effective tool in developing students.
“Career-wise for the students, for them looking outside, it is really important to share and meet new people, so it is the extra skills they get from it to come away for a weekend like this,” she said.
Ms Seawood-Adams also said the national championships covered a breadth of sports that are not typically on offer at every college.
“Locally, where we come from in Cornwall, there is good sporting performance, but not necessarily in every sport. AoC Sport gives us the chance for the golfers, the swimmers, the cross country runners to compete like for like.”
Lynne Gardner, head of college sport and enrichment at Peter Symonds College, Winchester, added that investing in sport, and being a member of AoC Sport, had enabled the college to “raise our participation levels brilliantly”.
“We have a college sports maker through being a member and they get everyone involved. We’ve got our top teams and then our development or recreational squads,” she said.
“We’re a college of 4,000 people, and last year actively involved with recreational physical activity we had 951 students participating on an ongoing basis, which is really great.”