The good sports of independent schools

Steve Wright hears how four of the UK's top independents are bolstering their already impressive sports offering

The UK’s independent schools know that top-level sporting facilities – and the level of success, whether at regional, national and international level, fostered by those facilities – are a major attraction for prospective pupils and parents. As such, schools across the country are completing or embarking on major additions to their sporting infrastructure – often with immediate and striking benefits.

Sheffield High School for Girls (SHSG) recently spent £2.5m refurbishing its gymnasium, located in an old chapel on campus. The building has undergone significant modernisation, creating a mezzanine floor built in the main gym area, complete with breakout spaces and a workout area with fitness equipment. Downstairs, a new cafeteria has been added, serving hot and cold snacks for pupils at breaks and lunchtimes.

The main space in the gym is used for gymnastics and trampolining – sports in which Sheffield excels. The last seven years have produced around 50 team titles in the two disciplines.

Founded in 1878, SHSG was one of the first girls’ schools in the UK to be built with a purpose-built gymnasium (now the school library), and one of the school’s founding principles was to be “pioneers in gymnastics”. Talented current students include school gymnastics captain, trampolinist and dancer Emily Wyman; GB World Age Group Squad trampolinist Lucy Horan; Jessica Rodgers, overall gold medallist at the Yorkshire Women’s Artistic Gymnastics championships; and Girls’ Day School Trust Gymnastics Champion, Lucy Buchanan.

“Our area of expertise has always been around gymnastics and trampolining, and the £2.5m investment by the Girls’ Day School Trust in our gym facilities is a clear reflection of the school’s commitment to this. Since the new gym opened in September 2017, we have seen a huge increase in participation from girls throughout the school. We have clubs on offer every night of the week for different age groups from 5–18, and we often have up to 50 girls training at these clubs,” said Liz Rodgers, Assistant Head (Extra-Curricular) at SHSG.

Further north, sport and physical education are an integral part of school life at Edinburgh’s Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools (ESMS), with a focus on ensuring that pupils at the diamond-structure school (Stewart’s Melville College for Boys, The Mary Erskine School for Girls, and the ESMS Junior School) gain positive experiences and confidence from playing sport at school.

Head of Physical Education at The Mary Erskine School Nichola Aitchison explained how the school makes use of the spectacular range of facilities – both on campus and further afield.

“To ensure that our ethos of ‘enjoyment and participation for all’ is realised, the variety of activities on offer across all Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools needs to be vast,” said Nichola. “Between them, the school grounds and Scotland’s wider terrain give rise to a plethora of pursuits, and the sporting and extra-curricular activities offered to our pupils reflect the adventurous and ambitious spirit here.”

Teachers and pupils are involved in selecting and promoting the sports that are offered both within and beyond the curriculum. Pupils can use the sports committee to suggest new ideas and were the instigators of the installation of two outdoor table tennis courts last session. Outdoor education classes often make the journey to the nearby Pentland Hills Regional Park, whilst expeditions for Duke of Edinburgh or adventure clubs go further afield, with trips to Ben Nevis, Glencoe or the Drumochter Pass being particular favourites. “ESMS continue to encourage children to go beyond their comfort zones and take every opportunity available to them to find new interests, all the while making use of the first-class facilities available both in school and among the rugged Scottish landscape,” said Nichola.

Further south, Oundle School is looking firmly towards the future. The school’s Sports Masterplan places sport as a central part of an education which will inform pupils’ lives long after leaving Oundle. “We want our pupils to take from school the attitudes, knowledge and enthusiasms that will support a happy, productive adult life – and this holds for our school sport as much as anywhere else,” explained Head Sarah Kerr-Dineen.

Danny Grewcock, Oundle’s Director of Sport and a former England and Lions rugby union international, has helped adapt Oundle’s already impressive facilities into the new vision. “I want to develop creative, adaptable and strategic thinkers for the sports field, the classroom and life beyond school,” he explained. “The Sports Masterplan will give pupils the best conditions in which to learn and achieve their sporting aspirations, whether it is playing to win or experiencing the rush of adrenalin doing something they love.”

The Masterplan centres on a new £24m sports centre, whose star feature is a 50-metre, six-lane swimming pool, divisible into two pools through use of a submersible boom. Elsewhere, an eight-court hall offers retractable bleacher seating, providing an opportunity for large school assemblies. Adaptable playing spaces include badminton, netball, volleyball, basketball and five-a-side football courts. A separate air-conditioned fitness suite with 70 stations and a dedicated dance studio and three further multi-purpose studios complete the offer. Environmental credentials are an integral part of the redevelopment, with photovoltaics and solar thermals helping to generate electricity and hot water.

The wider development around the new sports centre will include a new athletics track, eight additional tennis courts, two new AstroTurfs and six additional netball courts – all complementing the school’s award-winning JM Mills Cricket Pavilion, which opened in 2015.

Dual use has been factored into the development to ensure year-round community and sports club access to the new facilities. The school currently welcomes local schools and community groups to use its facilities, and will continue to do so under the Masterplan. Construction of the new sports centre started in March 2018, and the project is on track to open to pupils during the 2019/2020 academic year.

At the all-girl Bromley High School, meanwhile, excitement is growing with the recent installation of a new cricket pitch, with cricket replacing rounders (and joining athletics and tennis) in the summer sporting programme.

“With no boys’ teams competing for pitch time, our girls will have exclusive use of the pristine wicket which has not had a foot set upon it since October when it was laid,” said Bromley’s Director of Sport, Victoria Clemens. “We are excited to watch the game grow and evolve within our school.”

Victoria and her colleagues set great store by the importance of lifelong health and fitness. “We are always keen to consider innovations that will make sport more enjoyable for those girls who do not see themselves as ‘sporty.’ One thing we reflected on last year was the place of cross-country at our school – and, in particular, the dreaded 1,500m run. Many adults can recall the exotic excuses they used to get out of cross-country at school – but now sign up in record numbers for Race for Life and other charity runs,” added Victoria.

With the aim of maintaining this love of fitness from school age onwards, a 1,600m line is currently being installed around Bromley’s sport field. “Gone are the days when our girls will run endless laps of a track,” said Victoria. “The task now is simple: jog at your own pace from the start to the end of the line without stopping. We have made this into a charity fun run in support of a Year 11 pupil currently battling leukaemia. Alongside that, it is a house activity, where pupils can don house colours, put on music and jog along. Health and fitness have to be for all, and attending to this during school age can contribute to a lifelong, fruitful relationship with physical activity. This is the hope at Bromley High.”

To learn more about our quartet, visit: sheffieldhighschool.org.ukesms.org.uk; oundleschool.org.uk; bromleyhigh.gdst.net