When the students of O’Fiaich College, a mixed co-educational school in Dundalk, were presented with a challenge to partake in a Sky Sports initiative by one of their physical education teachers, they could hardly have anticipated the journey they’ve since embarked on.

Students from O'Fiaich College at the Sky Studios in London. Pic: Sky Ireland

Students from O’Fiaich College at the Sky Studios in London. Pic: Sky Ireland

Less than three months after commencing the Living for Sport programme, O’Fiaich were last week presented with the Project of the Year award at the broadcaster’s London studios, beating off competition from over 1,700 schools from the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The programme, which was launched in England over a decade ago and is part of the Sky Academy, uses sport to help boost participant’s confidence, change behaviours and improve life skills.

At a time when Ireland is in the throes of an obesity epidemic, their story is more irrefutable evidence that striking the right balance between academic work and exercise is paramount for the health – both mental and physical – of this country’s teenagers.

While the issue of physical education has been at the forefront of the government’s education agenda for some time now, very little has been done to address the fact Ireland designates less time a week to PE than any other European country.

As he noticed a swell in the numbers of his students lacking motivation and self-belief and an increase in behavioural problems, Brendan O’Malley, who is one of two PE teachers at O’Fiaich College, decided something needed to be done so he registered the school for the Living for Sport programme.

Each week, the students would participate in a different sporting workshop delivered by a local agency or club. The task of each of the class representatives was to then relay the information to their peers to ensure the whole school were involved.

The concept is remarkably simple yet the students’ involvement and enthusiasm throughout was unprecedented compared with any previous extra-curricular activity the school had carried out.

By the end of the 10 week project, all 19 participating students had improved their attendance and have since steered clear of any kind of misbehaviour. While sport is used as the platform, the emphasis of the programme is to help young people develop valuable life skills that will assist them in and outside of school, now and into the future.

O’Fiaich College are just one of 175 schools across Ireland benefiting from the free initiative which has been running here for two years.

If there was ever a tale which underlined the power of sport, comradery and self-belief then O’Fiaich College have undoubtedly written it but you get the feeling this is just the start of a new chapter for them and their students.