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Olympian and triathlete Alistair Brownlee on becoming an academy trustee

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54 ARTICLE Alistair

“It’s a role I’ve really enjoyed. I believe fundamentally in the importance of physical activity for young people’s health and wellbeing.”

Two-time Olympic gold medalist and triathlete Alistair Brownlee is also an academy trustee.

MEN BrownleeAlistair 1 modifiedHe makes time for the role whilst still training up to 30 hours a week as a professional athlete, representing fellow athletes as Chair of the European Olympic Committee’s Athletes Commission and advising his own charity, the Brownlee Foundation, which he set up with his brother Jonny.

(The phrase, “If you want anything done, ask a busy person?” springs to mind..)

We caught up with Alistair to find out how he got involved and what he’s taken from the world of education back to the other areas in his life.

Alistair, how did you come to be an academy trustee?

If I start with the ‘why’ first and then the ‘how’. I suppose I fundamentally believe in the importance of physical activity for young people’s health and wellbeing. I’ve run the Brownlee Foundation for 10 years now (since 2014) and we put on events for primary school children so they can experience triathlons. I’ve seen first-hand the impact of exposing young people to activities that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. My own experience at school was as a child who couldn’t sit still and struggled academically until a teacher took me out running every lunchtime and transformed my life in lots of ways - definitely my school life.

I was telling that story to David, the chair of trustees at Outwood Grange Academies Trust, and some of the other trustees who I’d bumped into and was acquainted with through various other avenues. We started to have a conversation about the impact I could have at Outwood. We went on to discuss the option of me becoming a trustee - and so that’s how it came about. I’ve been in this role for a couple of years now.

Do you have a specific link role or responsibility for physical activity on the board?

It’s not a named role but that is my general focus on the board - the area where I hope to effect change and where I have expertise.

Do you feel you’ve had an impact so far? It’s a tough time for schools at the moment and sometimes things like sport, which might be viewed by some as an added extra, can be a challenge.

Well I think that’s been one of the biggest learnings for me. Obviously I knew from the news how difficult it is in education more broadly at the moment. I started my role at the backend of the pandemic and some of the facts and figures I saw at those meetings in the early days were really quite stark. I would articulate it in the same way as you have - that delivering what schools have to in terms of the curriculum and other statutory responsibilities is hard enough. However, Outwood is good  - they’re academically driven and have high standards but they’ve developed some amazing fitness, sport and games facilities at some of the sites. That’s certainly part of the package although there’s still work to be done in other areas.

What’s stark is the number of young people coming out of primary school who can’t swim the length of a pool which is a requirement of the national curriculum. I certainly see that first-hand at our foundation events. If there are things I’d like to be able to focus more on, firstly it would be a change of focus so that physical activity becomes a fundamental and habitual part of young people’s lives. And it’s important to add here that activity can and should be fun - it doesn’t have to be walking in the gym on a treadmill, it can be playing football or playing with your friends but fundamentally part of the school day in some shape or form.

Secondly, a shift in mindset. Swimming a length or being able to ride a bike might feel like it falls under the umbrella of physical activity and, as you said, an additional extra for a school. But to me, those two are both crucial and really important life skills. 

Aside from a deeper understanding of the issues facing schools and the challenges facing young people, is there anything else you feel you’ve learnt that you’ve been able to take to other parts of your life?

I’d like to think I have a real interest in making things work and also in public service. Our own foundation is governed by some of the same charity laws as the trust and we also observe the principles of public life - so there is common ground in thinking about good governance.

The trust’s governance is really effective. If I compare that to some of the experiences I’ve had in sport, I’ve definitely been able to take some learnings away which is good.

I suppose in my self-appointed role of trying to improve physical activity in young people, I’m doing that in several ways and my work at the trust really complements it. I’m doing it at an operational level with the foundation and then right up to the representative role at the International Olympic Committee and being a role model through sport. I guess my academy trustee role kind of fits in the middle somewhere. Inspirational where possible but also a strategic role.

Do you get to visit the schools much?

Yes, I’ve been to quite a few of them. We usually hold board meetings in-person at the Outwood Leadership Academy in Doncaster. We’ve held meetings at other schools too. I’ve been to various sites - not all 41, but quite a few.

We are hoping at some point to hook up the Brownlee Foundation with the trust and give pupils a chance to try a triathlon. We haven’t found the right venue as yet - you need a swimming pool where there’s plenty of room and grass straight outside but it will happen at some point. It’s just finding the right location. Some of the schools have come to some of our events but we haven’t run a specific one for the trust yet.

The new Chief Inspector of Schools at Ofsted, Sir Martyn Oliver, was the CEO at Outwood Grange Academies Trust - how did you find working with Sir Martyn?

I’ve had the honour of working with lots of important people in different capacities in my life and I’ve been very impressed with Martyn in his capacity as a leader. Not that I can compare him to anyone in education but certainly from other fields. I’ve been really impressed by his dedication, emotional involvement and passion for the job. As well as his effectiveness and incredible work ethic. 

And finally, how do you fit it all in? I’m sure there are people out there half as busy as you who feel they wouldn’t have the time to commit.

Yeah I think I potentially do have a lot on. I try to be as organised as I can. All the roles I do are relatively flexible so if I need to participate virtually, and that’s the only option, then I can. Doing things virtually is definitely not a replacement for face-to-face meetings but it’s a game changer in allowing you to do some roles you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

But I do it because it’s something I really enjoy and I'm passionate about. I’d like to engage more with education as I do less sport. I couldn’t believe more fundamentally in the importance that education plays in young people’s lives and I believe the role of physical health and activity within this area is only going to increase. I’m looking forward to playing a small part in trying to encourage that. 


 

 

You might remember Alistair Brownlee from this viral video of him helping his heat-exhausted brother, Jonny, over the finish line at the World Triathlon series in Mexico.

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Comments

  • Lela Bolkvadze 22 Mar 2024, 11:24 (4 months ago)

    Alistair, your devotion to making a difference in school children's lives is a cause for genuine appreciation and contagious and inspiring for others as well to do their bit in it. Children do need good social examples and in that respect, your dedication is doubly beneficial, directly and indirectly- showing children that caring for the common good really matters.

    Kind regards, Lela Bolkvadze, parent governor

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