Going for gold

Can day schools attain the same levels of sporting excellence as their boarding peers? Damon Jones gauges the state of play

Independent schools made a significant contribution to Britain’s success at the London 2012 Olympics – comprising around 17% of Team GB participants, according to research published by sports education specialist Dr Malcolm Tozer. The proportion of medals netted by this particular group was also remarkably high: over 41% of Team GB’s medallists had benefited from a private education.

Intriguingly, Tozer’s research determines a roughly similar level of representation between day and boarding schools, irrespective of their varied provision. Perhaps one key differentiator, which isn’t necessarily dependent on material superiority, is a culture which fosters a winning mentality. According to a 2014 OFSTED report, titled Excellence in Competitive School Sport, such a perspective can help sow the seeds of future successes, and could improve the performance of state educators.

Millfield School, a day and boarding school located in Somerset, is associated with innumerable sporting triumphs. It was the most represented school at the London 2012 Olympics, and sustained its winning streak throughout the 2014 Commonwealth Games. One of its policies has been to appoint experienced staff with elite experience – including David Faulkner, Millfield’s current Director of Sport, an Olympic gold medallist and former Performance Director for England and Great Britain Hockey. “Sport is one of the key facets of the school’s reputation,” says David. “Our approach to sport is highly focus to each individual’s strengths: it is also aligned with the requirements of national governing bodies, and designed to ensure that, in all cases, the experience is a positive one”.

Asked whether Millfield’s boarders are granted any more opportunities than day pupils, David feels that, although they may have some additional access to facilities during early and late periods, the delivery of the school’s sporting programme remains identical across the student body. “I don’t think there is necessarily an advantage, although the boarding experience obviously differs,” he says. Moreover, the latter arrangement is not necessarily preferred. “Some families have actually moved into the area, just so their children can attend the school as day pupils.” 

Other senior figures concur that boarding does not necessarily equate with competitive advantage. 

Taunton School, another Somerset independent day and boarding school, includes several famous cricketers, including Jack White and John Jameson, among its former pupils. According to Hayley Mortimer, the school’s Director of Sport, Head of PE and a former national netball player and regional coach, admitting boarders does help the school to “give more choice”.

Fitness suites are open for boarders during evenings, increasing training opportunities for athletes, although day pupils frequently exploit this access too. Such resources help them, says Mortimer, “to gain a greater independence in their own training programmes. This can be both a positive and negative factor, but this is part of the ownership and development every athlete or performer undertakes.”

Taunton’s recent successes include Thomas Abell, Wisden Schools Cricketer of the year 2012, and Sophie Bowden, winner of the USA’s NCAA Hockey Championships as part of the University of Connecticut Team. Bowden was supported by the school in finding a 100% scholarship to the US, valued at $250,000. The school hopes to make these opportunities available to more youngsters through the recent launch of its ‘Sporting Excellence’ programme.

“Every school, in whatever it does, strives to achieve the best that they can. It’s about creating these opportunities,” says Mortimer. “The more you create, the more you achieve. Perhaps as a boarding school we have more time to create additional opportunities, but that in itself can cause pupils to spread themselves thinly over a number of activities.”

In both boarding and day schools, a staff body with a passion for cultivating talent can, she argues, provide a huge fillip for students’ chances of advancement. “If you work in a boarding school, you accept the fact that it is 24/7. Therefore most of the staff go beyond what is expected, because you can. Not only can staff fully commit to games sessions, but I often see notices for extra practices, to aid specific development or iron out any problems. I think if you obtain that ‘buy in’ from most of the staff, the atmosphere is always going to be positive and strong.”

There are other important differences between day and boarding schools, however, in terms of the role that sport plays within a school. Sue Hincks is Headmistress of Bolton School Girls’ Division, a day school in Greater Manchester, several of whose pupils have gone on to compete at national and international level, including the Olympics. She feels that, although day and boarding schools often share comparable cultures and emphasise similar values in their pursuit of sporting excellence, their requirements contrast somewhat.

“It’s true that boarding schools have to find ways to occupy their pupils during different parts of the week, and sport is a superb way of helping young people deploy their physical energy in appropriate ways,” Sue says. Her colleague Trevor Pledger, Director of Partnerships at Bolton School, feels that the greatest distinctions between schools may ultimately be between their staff. “It really comes down to the personnel who work in individual schools and the sporting provision put in place, rather than boarding schools having a particular advantage,” he says.

One of the UK’s largest independent day schools, with over 2,350 pupils, Bolton’s facilities, says Hincks, “can match those on offer in any boarding school”. And the school’s day, rather than boarding timetable has not hampered the amount of sporting provision on offer. Lunchtimes have been extended to accommodate additional team practice, while facilities are allocated for club use before and after hours. “At Bolton School, we appreciate the importance of sharing the resources that we have,” Pledger explains. “We share high-quality coaches between clubs and school.” Between the Boys’ Division and Girls’ Division Senior Schools, over 250 of Bolton’s children actively participate in sport at County level and above. Its sportspeople are offered pathways into clubs through a number of long-standing relationships with local partners like Bolton United Harriers, and several bodies including the Bolton Sports and Physical Activity Alliance (BoSPAA).

Such practices can set a school apart – and begin to redefine what sporting ‘achievement’ actually means for staff and pupils. Its functions may also be far more comprehensive than scaling national school leagues, or ensuring a well-stocked trophy cabinet, suggests John Claughton, Chief Master of King Edward’s School in Birmingham and Chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) Sports Committee.

“Clearly, in independent day schools, sport is important, but you can see why, in a boarding school, it’s more substantial,” Claughton argues. He points out, for example, that pupils at boarding schools need to be continually occupied. Moreover, this particular environment and structure creates some unique opportunities.

“On balance, boarding schools have a higher density of quality coaches, all year round, and they may also have invested more heavily in scholarships,” says Claughton. The size of some boarding schools is a factor here, too: large pupil intakes helps the biggest boarding schools to field high-quality teams in a number of disciplines, with the resources to run six or seven teams at, say, under-12 level. One way day schools can succeed at a similar level, Claughton suggests, is by focusing on particular sports – such as water polo in the case of his own King Edward’s School. Claughton also cites other independents such as Whitgift, Bradford Grammar School and the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle as schools which have gained much from this targeted strategy. 

“In each of our schools, sport assumes a fundamental role in the structure and ethos of the school – but in day and boarding cultures, it by necessity plays a slightly different functional role,” Claughton argues. For instance, house sport is intrinsic to boarding culture, encouraging cohesion and a sense of shared values among house colleagues. By attempting to imitate the high-flying achievements of Millfield – which Claughton feels is a game apart from other schools – educators might neglect other important benefits that sports can achieve. These include improving health and welfare, and functioning as a pressure valve – a release from the pressures of academic life and the rigours of exams. 

“I think each school will decide, completely independently, what it wants from its sports programme,” Claughton concludes. “But I think there’s a danger that we don’t think hard enough about what sport does and, consequently, we end up doing what we’ve always done.”