Sporting Advantage

Are you a budding Olympic champion, or perhaps you just like playing sport for fun? Either way, as a boarder you can take advantage of some excellent sporting opportunities

Website39_0223Britain’s future as a sporting nation is dependent on our boarding schools. Before you dismiss that statement as mere hyperbole – a journalistic ploy to capture the reader’s attention – just consider the evidence.

We all remember the enthusiasm that was generated by our athletes’ heroic efforts in the London Olympics and Paralympics in 2012. This spirit rolled over into the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games when an incredible 96% of the million available tickets were snapped up by the public. There was a resurgence of success in other sports, too. Who can forget Andy Murray in 2013 becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry or the England cricket team winning the Ashes in a mere 14 days’ play in the summer of 2014?

Yet these sporting high points failed to motivate the general public into getting off their sofas and playing sport themselves. Statistics compiled in March 2015 showed the number of people participating in some kind of sport once a week had actually fell by 222,000 since the previous October. The most notable drop came in going to the gym, with 153,000 people lost in the same time period.

At least one politician thought these findings spelt out a clear message. ‘These are fairly disastrous figures,’ said Clive Efford, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Sport. ‘Worst of all, many of the sports that are showing the biggest drop are those that you would relate to facilities provided by local government: things such as gym and fitness, swimming and dance.’

Provision for sport may be lacking in our communities and state schools but that is not the case in our independent schools. This brief overview of the ways in which these schools have kept alive the spirit of the 2012 Olympics will make it clear why our sporting future, too, lies in their hands.

St Leonards Mayfield School NetballOlympic champions

Some 37% of Britain’s medal-winning athletes at the London Olympics attended fee-paying schools, even though the sector educates just 7% of the population nationally. More than a quarter of Britain’s gold medallists were from independent schools.

How do we explain this? Well, to win a medal at the Olympics, an athlete must reach a pinnacle of physical fitness and human endeavour. It requires training, dedication and mental stamina. It also demands the very best facilities, the most skilled coaches and a sympathetic yet constructive support network. You will find this kind of back-up at a leading UK boarding school.

A good example is Millfield, which was little more than a few Nissen huts when it was founded in 1935. Now, however, it has, amongst other facilities, a 50-metre swimming pool, the like of which you won’t find in many cities, a Tartan athletics track, three all-weather hockey pitches, tennis courts, county-standard cricket squares and beautifully manicured football fields. The school’s young athletes even have the support of nutritionists, psychologists and tutors who teach them time-management skills so they don’t fall behind in their studies when they are training.

Millfield is not alone in offering such top-class facilities. Ed Smith, the former England batsman, was educated at Tonbridge and recently reflected on his school days. ‘At Tonbridge we had grass nets, ten synthetic turf nets and, come the weekend, the wicket was always in pristine condition,’ he explains.

Yet Ed had no idea at the time how privileged he was to play on such wickets. It was only when he reached Cambridge, where he scored a century on his first-class debut for the University, aged 18, that he appreciated the facilities of his schooldays. ‘University cricket was very good,’ he says. ‘But you couldn’t get grass nets to the standards we enjoyed at school.’

Lancing Cricket ScholarshipFamous faces

UK boarding schools have produced many of the biggest names in sport. Twenty of the England rugby team’s 31-man squad for the 2015 World Cup hailed from private schools. In cricket 73% of the usual England test team were privately educated, with only James Anderson, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali – breaking the pattern. It is a situation that has worried many people. ‘I have been saying for years that it won’t be long before everyone in the England side is privately educated,’ says Phil DeFreitas, the Ashes-winning bowler who is now cricket professional at Magdalen College School in Oxford. ‘There is no arguing with the facilities and the coaching and the reality that you have to pay for these things now.’ Oakham School old boy, Stuart Broad, who was until recently top of the International Cricket Council’s test rankings, believes that the structure of the boarding school day is also an important factor. ‘We could play sport most afternoons and every evening and the sports facilities were always open to us,’ he explains. ‘And the coaches we had were Frank Hayes and David Steele – both former England players. So you can see why I have done well.’

Wrekin_2016_Sportsday_340 copySport for all

You don’t have to be a budding professional to enjoy the sporting aspect of boarding school – there’s something for everyone, for all levels of ability. As well as the traditional team sports, many schools now also offer activities such as golf, squash, ballet, trampolining, water polo, lacrosse and basketball. If you simply want to keep in shape, over 750 independent schools have fitness training and at some you can take self-defence classes.

One of the more disturbing statistics to come from Sport England’s recent Active People Survey is that only 30.3% of women play sport at least once a week compared to 40.9% of men. The independent sector works hard to redress the balance.

Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire, for example, takes part every year in the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Marathon. After months of training on cold winter afternoons the crews spend three days over the Easter weekend paddling the 125 miles to London. It is an enormous physical and mental challenge and the girls match the boys stroke for stroke.

An inquiry published in June 2014 by education standards watchdog Ofsted revealed that there are ‘unacceptable discrepancies’ between the number of state and independent schools competing in sport at an elite level in England. Whereas you will be hard pushed to find any former independent school pupil who hasn’t represented his or her school, house or dormitory at some sport or other, Ofsted found only 13% of state school heads insisted all pupils took part in competitive sports.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of schools in England and head of Ofsted, believes a culture of healthy competition runs through the UK’s independent schools. ‘It is not resource that is the key to independent schools’ success but attitude,’ he said. ‘Children are expected to compete, train and practise secure in the knowledge that teachers will go the extra mile to help them. Children’s education is the poorer if they are deprived of the chance to compete.’

Bournemouth Collegiate Nina equestrianIs it worth it?

There will always be those who believe that innate talent is more important than expert tuition and state-of-the-art facilities. Nobody is better placed to see both sides of the argument than Ed Smith.

Coming from a big teaching family, with parents and grandparents who have worked in both the state and private sectors, Ed uses his ‘big sister’ Rebecca to draw the comparison between those two worlds. ‘In a sense my sister and I were part of an accidental educational experiment. Take two children with similar genes and similar talent: send one to a state school and the other to an independent school. What happened to my sister’s sporting experience was that she ran out of opportunities – not completely, but significantly. What happened to my sporting experience was that I received the best sporting education money can buy. I played cricket for England. She didn’t play for any team, in any sport, ever again.’

Fred Redwood is a former English teacher and a freelance journalist.