The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Dr Karamat Iqbal

Are extra-curricular activities important?

Out-of-hours pursuits can play a significant role in shaping a pupil's future. They deserve pride of place in a school's offer. 

In 2014, the then-secretary of state for education, Michael Gove gave a speech in which he pointed out that schools that excelled academically had a programme of extra-curricular activities.

In his view, these activities would give children the opportunity to discover talents they never knew they had. If schools are to be ‘ambitious for every child’, they shouldn’t keep clubs and sports off the menu.

However, the number of extra-curricular activities will naturally depend on the willingness of staff to afford and run them. A Google search will reveal that fee-paying schools are more likely to have a comprehensive menu of activities, an imbalance Gove recognised in his speech.

True enough, extra-curricular activities can be a financial uncertainty: persuading young people to participate, and getting parents on board, will sometimes be more than half the battle.

So, are they actually worth it?

Opening doors

Expedition charity World Challenge has suggested that extra-curricular activities should make up 30 per cent of a university applicant’s personal statement.

Naturally, academic results are the cornerstone of a successful application, but universities are always looking for extra-curricular activities that dovetail with the desired course and demonstrate important ‘soft skills’, such as teamwork and communication.

In the process of learning to play the violin or play cricket, children are learning to think for themselves and recognise their own strengths (Lareau, 2003). Extra-curricular activities are also important for embedding a valuable set of white-collar work skills, including how to:

  • set priorities
  • manage an itinerary
  • shake hands with strangers
  • work in a team.

Massoni identified that pupils who participated in extra-curricular activities were generally less likely to have problems with their behaviour, more likely to have a positive view of their school and less likely to drop out.

The white paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools For All acknowledged that children need to have a rich and exciting range of out-of-hours opportunities in order to allow them to follow their interests and broaden their horizons.

If proof be needed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that young people who participate in positive activities at age 14 tend to have higher test scores at key stages 3 and 4, and are significantly less likely to be NEET at age 17, than young people who do not participate in any activities. 

Extra-curricular activities can also benefit community cohesion: at coding club or the school newspaper, a pupil has the chance to interact with peers outside of their own ethnic group. 

What activities?

The possibilities are endless. Activities can be:

  • art-related such as music, dance, photography
  • involvement in a community organisation or place of worship or helping the elderly, community suppers or coffee mornings.
  • club or society based, such as chess, debating, film or skateboarding.

One group of young people in our local community organised fundraising events, including a performance of Sister Act, so they could spend their summer holidays helping orphans in Uganda.

Pupils’ achievements, and the extent of their involvement, is much more important than the activity itself. It only matters that pupils enjoy what they do, and learn something from it.

How do we provide them?

Extra-curricular activities are described as such for reason: offering more of what takes place during the school day, when teachers deliver and pupils passively receive.

I began my career in education as a youth worker, and it taught me some things I’ve carried ever since. Principally, that learning is a process, not a product. We teach young people so that they may grow as creators, not mere consumers.

Gove may have been right after all: it should be by virtue of our ambition, as well as that of our pupils, that extracurricular activities are kept squarely on the playing field.


Lareau, A., Unequal Childhood. (London, 2003).

More from Optimus

Similar Posts

Sarah Hopp

For the love of learning: using the positive niche construction framework

Balancing pupil wellbeing and academic catch-up is challenging. Sarah Hopp explains how the PNC framework can help all learners flourish. In the recent Opportunity for all white paper the government announced that by 2030: 90% of learners should reach the expected standard in English and maths at...
Elizabeth Holmes

The Joy of Not Knowing: a conversation with Marcelo Staricoff

Learning how to learn, philosophical thinking, action research and getting comfortable with discomfort: Elizabeth Holmes gets to grips with JONK. Recent headteacher, now consultant, lecturer and author, Marcelo Staricoff is a man with a mission. Drawing on his decades of experience as a scientist,...
Elizabeth Holmes

Aftermath: What followed the Ofsted maths review

The Ofsted research review on mathematics proved controversial when it was published in 2021. Elizabeth Holmes examines some of the responses and describes the direction of the ongoing discussion. Every now and then, the relative peace of the world of education, such as it is, is shattered by a new...