More than a sporting chance

Independent schools are serious about sport, and have Olympic medals to prove it

London 2012 set out to "inspire a generation" – but those involved in sport at UK independent schools might find the ambition a little passé. "Sport is deeply, historically embedded in our schools," says John Claughton, who is both chief master of King Edward's School in Birmingham and chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) sports committee.

For evidence, look at the Team GB Olympic medal-winners. According to a study by the Sutton Trust, more than a third of the sportsmen and women that climbed the podium this summer were privately educated. Cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, for example, went to George Watson's College in Edinburgh, and diver Tom Daley gained an A* and two As in his A-levels at Plymouth College this summer.

However, in some other sports – including rowing, modern pentathlon, sailing, and equestrian sports – independent school graduates are even better represented. Of the rowers and sailors who won medals at Beijing in 2008, 50 per cent were educated at fee-paying schools, as was every medal-winner in equestrian events.

These are impressive statistics from a sector that educates just 7 per cent of the school population – but schools in the independent sector have traditionally prioritised sports as a part of a well-rounded education. "Sport is part of our DNA, so it's hardly surprising that a lot of independent school-educated girls and boys go on to be successful in sport," says Claughton.

"Independent schools place a particular emphasis on sport and often devote a great deal of time to it," agrees Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC). "A high proportion of our teachers are involved in coaching sports teams. We aim to ensure that all our pupils are involved in sport and that the most talented are coached to a high level. This is why many national teams are dominated by pupils from our schools."

The British Council also notes: "Independent schools take sport seriously, offer a wide range of sporting activities and often have outstanding facilities. Many of the UK's outstanding international sports stars learned their skills first at a boarding school."

Millfield in Somerset is a case in point. The largest co-ed boarding school in England, eight alumni and one current student went to London 2012. Two – rower Helen Glover and shooter Peter Wilson – bagged gold. "Our facilities rival any in the country," notes Dr Graeme Maw, the school's director of sport. Indeed, he says, Millfield boasts a riding stable, an indoor tennis hall, "outstanding" cricket facilities, a 50m swimming pool and a golf course. "We have a responsibility for developing the whole of the young person – body, mind and spirit," he says. "Sport is central to that, and not just for the physical benefits, but for all the things sport can do in terms of character and values and leadership." He points to the school's swimming squad. "They train very hard and at very odd times, learning time management, discipline, responsibility, determination, dedication and confidence."

But although sport is integral to the education experience at both Millfield and King Edward's, Maw and Claughton agree that it's highly valued by independent schools across the board. "We're proud of our sports facilities at King Edward's, but they're comparable to those at most good independent day schools," acknowledges Claughton. The day school boasts several rugby pitches, four cricket squares, an athletics track, a swimming pool, a sports hall and squash courts. Compared to the facilities found in most state sector schools, it's an impressive norm.

The calibre of sports coaching at independent schools is also extremely high. "Staff here would expect that if they have some sporting experience or ability, they would be coaching teams, running sessions and so on," says Claughton. "In addition to that, schools like ours invest a lot of money in PE and games staff, and attract very able sportspeople. My hockey coach went to an Olympics, for example. The director of rugby at most independent schools will be a former professional, and lots will have cricket professionals too."

Millfield similarly prides itself on recruiting exceptional sports staff. Its coaches include the ex-Olympian swimmer Helen Gouldby and athlete Gary Jennings. Maw himself is a former performance director for both the Welsh Rugby Union and the British Triathlon Association. "There are about 140 members of staff here who actively deliver sports programmes," Maw notes. "About 30 of those are highly-qualified professional sports coaches whose particular expertise is in working with young people – but we have additional teachers who enthusiastically deliver sport, and who receive training to support them in that."

Sporting excellence in the independent schools sector has been propelled into the public eye this summer, partly due to its successes of Team GB, and partly in discussions over the legacy of the Games. The government has come under fire – not least from the outgoing chairman of the British Olympic Association, Lord Moynihan – for failing to sufficiently support sports provision in state schools.

Sue Campbell, the chairman of UK Sport, agrees that independent schools are better set up to support sports education. "State schools might have a PE teacher but they don't have someone to manage the after-school opportunities, to hire some coaches, to organise the inter-school sport," she has said. "This means athletes from state schools get there [because] they happen to chance upon a sport where they are given good coaching, whereas the independent schools have structured, clear pathways and quality coaching."

For its part, the ISC points out that the majority of independent schools are involved in sports partnerships with local state schools and sports clubs. According to the ISC Census 2012, 970 of 1,223 schools had such sporting partnerships. "We're very lucky with our facilities," says Claughton. "Schools in the HMC do a great deal in partnership [with state schools and local clubs] and are ready to do more." It's not about hoarding facilities, he notes, it's about striving for sporting excellence and reaping the wider educational benefits that come with that.

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