Play up and play the game

Leading independent schools are abandoning the legacy of Tom Brown's School Days by devising sports curricula emphasising inclusivity and pupil choice

School sports have an ambiguous reputation. Many successful women and men, who gaze back at their school days through a rose-tinted haze, nonetheless shudder at the mention of sports. Badly suppressed memories of wind-lashed, frozen battlegrounds of mud masquerading as games pitches abound. 

However, times have changed radically. A new generation of senior leaders in independent schools are making innovative decisions to shape their curriculums, rethinking the place of traditional sports like rugby and hockey, and introducing new ones. The stakes are undoubtedly high: countless studies have identified a central link between health, mental and physical, and physical activity at school. As the World Health Organisation states: “Good health supports successful learning. Education and good health are inseparable”. The issue is particularly acute at this time of year. Exam stress and revision pressures mean that having an outlet to let off steam and cleanse the mind is more than advisable – it’s essential.

“Our aim is for all pupils to find an affectionate connection with sport and physical exercise,” said Alex Fermor-Dunman, Director of Sport at Bryanston School. “If a pupil leaves without doing this, we consider ourselves to have failed.” Bryanston supports this aim with a broad range of PE options, sports and extra-curricular physical activities. Among those offered is kayaking on the River Stour which runs through the school grounds. Since it was introduced a few years ago, school crews have typically excelled: more than 100 have completed the gruelling 125-mile Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race, and they have won the Junior Team Trophy on four occasions. Alex emphasises that ‘inclusion’ is Bryanston’s mantra and manifesto: “There are no alternative sports to our mind. At Bryanston it is about sport for all.” 

It’s an ethos that resonates at Cheadle Hulme School as well (above). “Create the right sporting environment and the pupils will participate and want to represent their school,” said Lucy Pearson, Head at Cheadle Hume. To build this inclusive and engaging environment Cheadle Hulme adopted a three-way approach. First, they introduced new sports to the curriculum like ultimate frisbee and handball; second, they made efforts to re-write the narrative around traditional ‘boys’ sports, introducing girls’ football and girls’ cricket, seeing the “success of the national teams” as an “exciting opportunity to promote higher female participation rates”. Lastly, they adopted a more holistic approach to the idea of sports in general. As Caroline Dunn, Deputy Head, described: “Activities include team sports for those who want to just ‘play’, yoga and pilates to combat exam stress, Zumba to lift mood and increase confidence, kickboxing training to learn self-discipline and how to self-regulate…Any form of activity that will help keep all young people mentally and physically well.”

Flexibility and an emphasis on pupil choice is equally important at Rugby School. “The world of sport and exercise is evolutionary and we endeavour to be the same, after all, if we weren’t susceptible to change and progression, the game of rugby football wouldn’t exist!” said Debbie Skene, Director of Sport at Rugby School. The birthplace of the sport that, more than any other, is synonymous with independent school games has adopted a thoroughly comprehensive approach to their sporting provision. They offer more than 20 alternative sports from rackets to polo, cross-country to clay pigeon shooting. Most importantly, the decision to adopt these sports is not a top-down affair; rather, it is the enthusiasms of staff and students that dictate the introduction of new sports. 

“Our students are international and bring with them an enthusiasm for sports that are not necessarily played in the UK. We are always open to trying new sports, especially when there is a staff enthusiast or local club link,” said Debbie. By making their sports curriculum ‘open source’, senior management at Rugby not only ensure that pupils reap the physical benefits of exercise, but also learn a host of ‘soft skills’ as well – “We are not afraid to fail, we teach leadership, foster teamwork and [we] are committed.”

Climbing on Gigg crag

Some schools see launching alternative sports as a logical next step to take advantage of an important resource – their natural surroundings. As with Bryanston’s kayaking on the River Stour, pupils at Giggleswick School in North Yorkshire are encouraged to see the rugged countryside around them as a playground in which to push themselves, learn new skills and build themselves physically and mentally. 

“We are encouraging interest in cycling, running, climbing, golf, triathlon and cyclocross,” said Mark Turnbull, Headmaster at Giggleswick School. This interest has been ignited through a programme of significant investment, including a mountain bike track and an indoor climbing wall. That the school also lies on the Tour de Yorkshire cycle race route has inspired real excitement from pupils. “We are already seeing results from our investment in these facilities,” added Mark. “One of our recent sixth-formers has competed in cyclocross races throughout the last two summer and winter seasons.”

Mark, though, is keen to highlight that the promotion of individual sports, and resulting medal successes, does not undermine the sporting ethos of teamwork and co-operation. “It’s important to recognise that ‘individual’ doesn’t mean alone. Ask anyone tackling a difficult route up a crag how much they have to work with the person belaying them at the bottom.”

Rugby Girls’ shooting team 

The idea that new sports promote cohesion, rather than eroding it, is universal across schools introducing alternative activities. Partly, this is a result of most pupils feeling, finally, that physical activity is something that is open to all, not just reserved for a ‘sporty’ few. This realisation transcends the playing field, track, ring, river or climbing wall, and translates into real benefits throughout the school, at every level. New enthusiasms are infectious and contagious. Kelvinside Academy discovered this when, inspired by the example of the recent Olympics, they introduced handball. Fiona Kennedy, Head of House, admits that she thought that pupils would quickly move onto something else. However, it had massive staying power. 

“We now have more than 100 pupils taking part in handball sessions every week,” explained Fiona. “The handball coach is GB international Sarah Carrick, and the team has already won 16 national titles, with 13 pupils capped for Scotland at age grade. This is what the Olympics and Commonwealth Games is really about: inspiring a passion within young people and getting them to try something new.” 

Wherever it comes from then – the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, a new staff member or pupil’s enthusiasm – the passion provoked by the introduction of new sports cannot be ignored. They play an essential role in inspiring a life-long love of exercise in pupils, and work especially well to motivate those who previously might have felt excluded from traditional games. They also have a more intangible value as well: promoting the school as a truly modern place of learning, where pupils’ interests are fiercely promoted, protected and championed. And it’s hard to put a price on that. A generation of future leaders will look back on their school days, then, and not be haunted by memories of windswept arenas of muddy misery, but see their games provision as spaces that allowed them to thrive, flourish and grow. Play up and play the game indeed.