Winning formula: How can Britain produce Wimbledon champions?

When it comes to nurturing young tennis stars, Britain could learn a lot from the US where students spend as much time on sport as they do on learning.

Laura Robson will have little time for study as she prepares for her debut as a player in the Wimbledon women's singles next week. The heavy text books that fly around the world with the 15-year-old, who is dubbed the "new darling of British tennis", are likely to remain where they started – in her suitcase.

The exams that she is due to take next year are hardly likely to be a priority for a girl who last year rose to stardom as the first British player to win the Wimbledon girls' event since Annabel Croft in 1984. The question over the next few weeks will be why Britain cannot manage to produce more young players like her.

Part of the blame lies in this country's inflexible school system, according to Helen Crook, a former Wimbledon champion. Robson may have dropped out of school, but she has already signed sponsorship deals and is forging a career in her sport. "What about all the twenty-something young hopefuls who don't make it and have little to fall back on?" asks Crook.

"Schools in the UK give their pupils far too much academic work to do. It's over the top and unnecessary. Then there's all the fluffiness in the curriculum and attempts to instill life skills that tennis players get from the discipline of training and competing anyway," says Crook who competed at eight Wimbledon tournaments and was ranked number one for UK ladies' doubles.

Most schools have children studying 10 or even 11 GCSEs when they need five to get into university, she says. "It's crazy and actually creates an incentive for children to drop out of school and abandon academic qualifications altogether."

To help young players she has set up a Freedom School in Chingford, east London, where they combine training and studying for a reduced number of qualifications. The school charges fees but they amount to around a third of those of most independent schools.

"As a nation we are pretty poor when it comes to encouraging children into sports or the arts, yet with the 2012 Olympics just around the corner, money is being ploughed into our sporting stars. What we are still failing to do is strike that important balance between sport and education. Until we do so we will never be able to emulate the success of many other European countries and the US."

Crook, who studied at a college in the States before launching her professional career, says Britain has a lot to learn from the American system of nurturing sportsmen and women through an intensive morning of academic studies and an afternoon free to train. Since last September her school has employed tutors to teach A-levels in a room above the bar in a pub. In September it will move to new premises and expand to take GCSE students.

"We encourage 14- and 15-year-olds to take three GCSEs a year over two years instead of the usual 10 subjects. This more than meets the requirements of UK and American universities and means they are able to combine studying with training and tournaments," she says.

As with most sports, a disproportionate number of top players come from independent schools, which have better resources and more curriculum flexibility. However, even some of the most sports-friendly private schools can fail to support the most talented students. Georgina Bastick, 17, a pupil at the Freedom School, left her private school at the age of 14 to be taught at home. Though the school had agreed to reduce her workload from 11 to seven GCSEs, it expected her to devote time to represent it in tennis, rounders and netball.

"They wanted me to play in their teams when I wanted to go and play tennis. I couldn't get out of it. They make you feel guilty, as if you are letting the teams and the school down," she says. "I thought I could motivate myself to do home schooling but I found it really difficult without other people in a class and teachers to give me feedback."

Independent schools such as Queenswood, the girls' school in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, and Culford, in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, have top-class facilities plus scholarship places to reduce fees for gifted players. In the state sector, however, the approach has been half-hearted with tennis still often regarded as a fringe or elitist sport. Even specialist sports colleges have tended to spread their extra funds thinly to support more general PE lessons rather than developing special courses for the high-fliers.

It's true that schools could do a lot more, says David Johns, who has been running a scholarship scheme at Cheam High, a state comprehensive in Sutton, for 15 years. "We were approached by the Sutton tennis association and together we've found a way to integrate education and training, using a minibus to take players from school to Lea's centre of excellence two miles away," he says.

Top international players are getting younger, he says, and the scheme, which began with sixth-formers, now takes children from the age of 11. One of its participants is Lana Rush who plays for England in the under-12s team. Her parents, Matt, a PE teacher, and Caroline, the joint chief executive of the British Fashion Council, have organised their lives and careers around their daughter's tennis training.

Lana started at a private school in Cheshire and then went to a tennis academy in Barcelona with her father while her mother flew out at weekends. "In terms of family life, it wasn't ideal. We did it for a year but didn't think the coaching was appropriate so we returned to London. Through Lana's coach we heard about the scheme for tennis players at Cheam," says Martin Rush.

"We didn't want Lana to do distance learning because we wanted to keep her in a relatively normal school environment for as long as possible. It's important she interacts socially with her peers. If schools would enter into the same sort of relationships with all the Lawn Tennis Association's high-performance centres around the country, it would mean children and families wouldn't have to uproot themselves."

Mike Sacchi, the father of Jamie, 17, another Cheam pupil, says the lack of support has made tennis a middle- and upper-class sport. "Things are improving and places like Sutton are making it easier, but we are not there yet," he says. "Children from Cornwall and the North of England are at Cheam because they have nothing like it where they live. It is to this country's shame that young players cannot develop as high-ranking tennis players without sacrificing their studies and without parents who can afford to support them.

"Tim Henman is from a well-to-do family, Greg Rusedski came up through the Canadian system and Andy Murray's mother was a very good player and an LTA coach. Everyone else has to struggle like mad and that is why we don't produce the players that France, Russia and America do."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
news
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

Foundation Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Early Years and Foundation stage Prim...

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: ***KS1 & KS2 Teachers needed for ...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone