Former PE teacher's firm is fighting fit

Former PE teacher's firm is fighting fit

This year’s BQ Emerging Entrepreneur award in Yorkshire was handed to former PE teacher-turned-social-entrepreneur Darren Padgett. He will now compete for the national title at MADE: The Entrepreneur Festival in Sheffield in October. Ahead of the event, he tells Andrew Mernin how he shot his way to start-up success.

The entrepreneurial spark hits some when they least expect it. Take Darren Padgett. Having spent almost 30 years as a PE teacher, he saw the rest of his career mapped out ahead of him as he approached his 50th birthday.

Another decade and a half of life in a tracksuit would be followed by a healthy pension pot to enjoy music, running and his other passions. Then Michael Gove intervened, and funding cuts signed off by the then education secretary left Padgett facing the dole queue.

“I had been working as the Schools Sports Partnership’s manager in Barnsley for eight years, working with primary and secondary schools and creating a whole network. I had become a teacher of teachers and we had developed a fantastic programme,” he says. “It was about putting competition at the forefront of school life, but also the mass participation of kids and engaging them.”

“But at a national conference in 2010 we were told the coalition had decided the programme was being cut due to funding.” Instead of seeking new employment, Darren sought to continue the good work. “I considered looking for a job, but then thought ‘who’s going to pick this up if I don’t?’ It was quite scary once I’d made that decision.”

Padgett was formerly head of PE at the school where bleak, boy-meets-kestrel movie Kes was filmed. And he admits to initially being trained in the mould of Brian Glover’s infamous turn as an overbearing PE teacher. But gradually he realised there was so much more that could be achieved in physical education by moving away from just a winning-at-all-costs mentally.

“Our ethos was about showing kids what they could do for the rest of their lives. So we introduced them to a range of activities which are fun and involve teamwork, communication and resilience. I use the term ‘fit for life’.” And so Team Activ, employing 20 people with a turnover of around £350,000, was born.

Darren Padget 03

Once the programme that paid Padgett’s wages was scrapped, he acted fast to build a social enterprise that could take its place.

“The biggest challenge was self-doubt. Was I up to the task? How long could I keep it going? Was there something else I should have been doing? But I started talking to other business leaders, who I found were far more open than people in education. I realised that they had the same self-doubts as I did.”

Team Activ was set up with a remit to transform lives by making sport fun, challenging and life affirming. It started out purely focused on schoolchildren but, with national expansion beckoning, it also now works with businesses and their employees.

With no investment or funding to buy time in the start-up phase, Padgett’s first hurdle was to get schools to tune into his vision. “I basically said to the schools ‘you know that programme that you’ve had for free for 10 years because it’s government funded? Will you fund it yourself if I can assure you that it will be even better than you’ve had before?’”

Forty schools came aboard and Padgett was able to employ six former colleagues.

Team Activ’s goal is to help drive a society-wide change in how sporting activity is used. Padgett believes sport can and should play a wider role in communities and businesses.

Activities like orienteering, trail races and geocaching – which sees participants use GPS to hide and seek containers – can make sport less intimidating and more inclusive, he says.
“Most adults have an impression of PE from when they were at school that usually isn’t very good. We are creating a future where people are fit for life. That’s not just physically fit; it’s mentally and socially fit.

In primary schools, every teacher has to teach PE but physical education has always been undervalued in terms of training. So we also work to train them on the job and to be more confident with PE.”

Darren Padget 02

Today Team Activ works with around 50 primary schools, 10 secondary schools and one further education facility in Barnsley College. Each customer pays based on number of pupils per year. Padgett estimates turnover will hit £1m next year and £10m within five years.

His confidence comes from the company’s broadening horizons, with an increasing number of schools beyond South Yorkshire registering an interest. There is also a keenness to work with the NHS, while it is already working with councils on a programme promoting the benefits of walking.

“In effect we are doing a lot of work that will have an impact on the NHS further down the line. We are getting kids fitter for the future, which will have a knock-on effect and reduce NHS spending.” And the firm aims to engage more closely with the corporate world and local communities.

Through the spin-off brand Team Activ Adventure it has launched a series of events called ‘Go Wild in...’ which will take place this year in the Peak District, the Lakes, Scotland and the Yorkshire Dales. Under the moniker Team Activ Plus, the company is also working with businesses, running corporate sports leagues and encouraging after-work activities.

“Having a fit and healthy workforce can make a lot of difference to productivity, morale, staff retention and sickness rates,” Padgett says. “Corporate events, such as the dodge ball competition we recently hosted in Leeds, will make us sustainable,” says Padgett. “We’ve built a local model of how sport and physical activity can and should operate nationally.”

As his enterprise grows, so too does his profile as an expert on all things PE. He is now chairman of the National Association for Physical Education and works closely with the Department for Education and Sport England.

In 2012 he won the Unsung Hero award at the Daily Telegraph’s School Sport Matters awards. Let’s hope he can add to his trophy cabinet by picking up the national BQ Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year Award later this year.