Richard Bailey Ph.D.,

Richard Bailey Ph.D.

Smart Moves

Can Sports Make Schools More Attractive Places for Students?

Sports, physical activities and school engagement

Posted Sep 08, 2014

A recent report from the United States has highlighted the serious problem of absenteeism facing many schools, and the serious effects this can have on young people’s achievement and later lives. The report - Absences Add Up: How School Attendance - demonstrates that students with higher absenteeism rates have lower scores on national standardized tests. Poor attendance contributes to the achievement gap for students struggling with poverty and minority ethnic groups within communities. It is hardly surprising, of course, that there is a connection between school attendance and student achievement, but the data reported is still shocking:


“students who miss more school than their peers consistently score lower on standardized tests, a result that holds true at every age, in every demographic group and in every state and city tested.”


The study also highlighted the vital importance of intervening as soon as absences begin.


This is neither surprising nor particularly new. A growing awareness of the problems of absenteeism or truancy has resulted in governmental agencies responding in increasingly frustrated and severe fashion. A popular strategy has been to shift the focus of blame on to parents. Figures from the UK reveal a five-fold increase in the number of parents found guilty of charges related to their son or daughter refusing to attend to school. In Australia, parents of truanting children risk having their welfare checks blocked.


Many people have questioned both the fairness and effectiveness of this approach. The problem is that the blame-and-punish response to absenteeism ignores the cause of the problem. It is difficult to argue with Law Professor Sally Varnham that the solution lies in creating places where young people want to go and are able to learn:


“Having significant numbers of young people disengaged from education is a serious problem, both in terms of life expectations and the future of society. Being out of school substantially increases the risk of criminal offending, and a lack of education is a firm predictor of unemployment.”


School engagement is a vital element in a successful school experience, as it is at the heart of students' participation in their education. It is not enough that they are present within the school grounds: educational success requires an active and willing connection with learning, the curriculum, and teachers. Students who are positively engaged will achieve more and be happier with the school experience than those who are disengaged. They will also, of course, be more likely to turn up to school!


Evidence suggests that sports and other physical activities can help foster school engagement.


High School Cheerleaders

School engagement is an umbrella concept for several different components of students’ attitudes, behaviors, and feelings. Psychological engagement, for example, refers to a feeling of belonging with the school and a sense of connection to teachers, and there is persuasive evidence that participation in activities like sports can help foster a greater sense of school belonging and satisfaction.  In fact, according to one study, time spent in organized sports significantly predicted a positive attitude to school and belonging.


Sports are not the only activities that contribute to young people’s psychological engagement to school. Similar effects have also been identified in after-school performing arts clubs, school-involvement activities or academic clubs.  Extracurricular involvement in a variety of activities has been associated with lower dropout rates and is linked to reduced problem behaviors in areas such as delinquency and substance use.


In addition, students participating in leisure activities after-school tend to express positive feelings towards their teachers and other adults.


Cognitive engagement, the second type of school engagement, relates to factors like self-regulation and appreciating the benefits of learning, which have been demonstrated to have profound and long-lasting effects of educational achievement.  Again, evidence suggests that sports and other forms of physical activity can make a contribution. Children and young people who are physically active during the school day tend to be more eager to learn, and have improved attitudes towards learning and overall discipline in schools.


Studies from a number of countries have reported positive associations between physical activity and motivation to learn, school satisfaction and school connectedness, and negative relationships with delinquent behaviors. Results indicate that schools with higher proportions of sports participants have significantly fewer serious crimes and suspensions occurring on school grounds.


Matters are not all positive. Some forms of sports participants, especially among young men, can promote precisely the opposite effect, resulting in sports taking a higher priority than academics. Some sports club cultures can even lead to an increased incident of risky behavior that may seriously undermine school success.


The final form we will consider is academic and behavioral engagement. This concerns issues like attendance and participation in school life, as well as grades and examination success.


Studies have found that students who participate in sports activities were twice as likely to attend school as opposed to those who did not. A 5-month program involving attendance monitoring, sports participation, and a moral character class found significant differences between intervention and control groups in terms of reduced absenteeism, increased educational expectations, improved attitude toward education, and general school engagement.


An Australian review examined sports and physical activity programs designed to address antisocial behaviors such as truancy and more serious crimes. Although they acknowledged that there was limited evidence, the researchers’ conclusion was that there was reasonable evidence to support the claim that these activities provide an effective vehicle through which personal and social development in young people can be positively affected.


School-sponsored sports programs can also help foster school spirit, which can translate to a greater attachment to the school. A study from the UK evaluated a four-year physical activity intervention focused on students at risk of disengaging or absenting from school. It found that students who engaged with the scheme benefited from a range of positive improvements. Including increased attendance, improved behavior, great self-confidence), and that these positive outcomes were sustained until they left school. Researchers also found that students who experienced the program were more likely to become role models for others.


Studies like these shows that sports and other physical activity programs offer a constructive solution to a serious problem that affects school systems around the world. Poor attendance and absenteeism have become international challenges, not just because of their harmful effects on educational achievement, but also because of their legacy of reduced opportunities later in life. Previous posts have demonstrated that regular physical activity can make a distinctive contribution to educational results, and that part of the story seems to be concerned with its effect on cognitive functioning and brain health. School engagement is another element, and serves to strengthen the case for regular sports and other physical activities for every student in every school in every country.



Melbourne High School Cricket Team







For more information on this topic see:


Bailey, R.P., Hillman, C., Arent, S., and Petitpas, A. (2013). Physical activity: an underestimated investment in human capital? Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 10(3), 289-308.


Veliz, P., and Shakib, S. (2012). Interscholastic Sports Participation and School Based Delinquency: Does Participation in Sport Foster a Positive High School Environment?  Sociological Spectrum, 32(6), 558-580.