Games anyone can play

Less sporty pupils are being given the chance to shine in new activities such as rowing, kick-boxing and Ultimate Frisbee. And the effect shows in their classwork, says Tim Walker

If the rumours are to be believed, the long-running battle between the jocks and the nerds has ended in a friendly truce. These days, in independent schools at least, every boy and girl plays sport regardless of their ability, while some of the most impressive academic achievers are dedicated sportspeople.

Julia Wareham, head of physical education at Headington School for girls in Oxford, is adamant that sport should be for all. "I think the old days of `if you can't run fast or catch a ball, then you hate sport' are long gone," she says. "We're very aware of the need for health and fitness nowadays, so we need to find ways to keep people interested in sport." As a result, independent schools are putting their imaginations to work. The core sports - football, rugby and cricket for boys; hockey, tennis and lacrosse for girls - are still as important as ever, but now less sporty pupils have the opportunity to branch out into activities that aren't so intimidating. At Headington, for example, fencing is popular, and the trampolining club is thriving. "You're up there bouncing about on your own," says Wareham, "which means that you can just enjoy yourself without feeling that you might let any team-mates down."

Independent schools, and boarding schools in particular, have both the time and the resources to ensure that every pupil can find their sporting niche. Cheltenham Ladies' College has recently built a second multi-gym, and now has inter-house gym competitions, yoga classes and, at the request of the girls, kickboxing lessons. "It's important to make sure that more recreational activities are catered for," says headmistress Vicky Tuck. "As the girls get older and some give up team sports, they still need physical activity." The school recently held a charity dance evening, where groups of girls devised and performed their own routines. "Dancing is something that's fashionable but also very physically demanding," Tuck explains. "I'd say we've got the fittest girls in the country..."

And sport is no longer seen as competing with the classroom. On the contrary, some sports have an incredibly positive effect on pupils' academic performance. Headington regularly sees members of its rowing teams representing Great Britain at junior level, and staff have noted with pleasure that the rowers always do well in public exams. Far from detracting from academic work, the sport forces its participants to be highly driven, organised and efficient, as well as fit and healthy. Many other schools have noticed the same. Shrewsbury School for boys perches high on the banks of the River Severn and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a strong rowing tradition and a number of current junior international rowers. Todd Jesdale, who began coaching the school's rowing team last September, says: "Already I have seen two or three boys, who were wandering somewhat in their studies, find their way with rowing, and their academic work has suddenly come to life."

Jesdale has a theory about the correlation between rowing and exam success. "Rowing teaches the boys to work towards long-term goals as well as short- term ones," he explains. "When he's rowing in the dark and cold in January, a boy must have his mind on the summer and regatta season. It's hard to know whether the sport teaches that commitment or simply endorses it, but there's certainly a link."

Jesdale himself is an example of the imaginative investment that schools like Shrewsbury are now willing to make in sport. Originally from the US, the 65-year-old coached a Cincinnati boys' club to more than one victory at the American national championships, and during the Nineties coached the junior US team to a world championship gold medal and two silvers. Between 1996 and 1999, he ran the US centre for junior rowing. He is modest about his achievements but, as Shrewsbury's headmaster Jeremy Goulding says, "he is one of the greatest coaches in the world." Indeed, Goulding can hardly believe his luck. "Todd has only been here since the start of the academic year, but the effect has been instantaneous," he says. "He's not flamboyant, but he is quietly inspirational. We feel extremely fortunate to have him."

Other schools also understand the value of having experts like Jesdale on their sports staff. At Millfield in Somerset, conditioning trainer Karen Buckley has applied specialist coaching methods to push the already successful First XV rugby team to new heights: psychology sessions and a diet regime have joined the physical training repertoire, and the players have recently been rewarded with an unbeaten season. Headington, meanwhile, is lamenting the recent departure of its first dedicated "Ultimate Frisbee" coach. "We were very sad to lose her," says Wareham. "While she was here, one of our girls was selected for the Great Britain Ultimate Frisbee team."

Of course, it isn't just a school's teachers who value their sports staff. Many pupils develop far better relationships with their coaches than with their classroom teachers, which can be crucial to the pastoral care of pupils - a particular concern for boarding schools. "It's far more informal than being a class teacher," explains Wareham. "Yes, it's work related, but it involves social interaction, and we're encouraging students to work with each other, unlike the classroom where they are mostly working alone." Jesdale, who teaches English when he's not messing about on the river, agrees. "As a coach, you build very strong relationships, very affirmative relationships with the boys," he says. "For 18 years, your parents are always telling you all the things you shouldn't do - I'm a parent, and I know I'm more likely to comment on the unmade bed than the made one. The same is often true in the classroom - I'm guilty of it in my teaching, focusing on the things students get wrong, not on what they get right. But as a sports coach, you have much more opportunity to focus on what people get right, and applaud them for it."

Sport has always held a privileged place in the independent schools curriculum. It promotes that old chestnut, school spirit, as well as laudable (if self-evident) values such as teamwork and competition. But where team selection lists used to be talismans that separated the jocks from the nerds, nowadays schools are intent on offering enough variety to allow even the least athletically minded student their place on the podium.

"On the one hand, it means that talented sportsmen can reach the highest level in their chosen sport," says Goulding. "But it also means that we have sport for all: every boy can enjoy sports, at whatever level best suits them. It's what parents want, and it brings satisfaction to the boys and to the staff who coach them."

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