Direct action

Steve Wright examines the challenges and opportunities facing today’s Directors of Sport

Sporting success – and, more widely, sporting participation across all ages and abilities – is an increasingly crucial part of the way UK independent schools tell their story to prospective parents and pupils. With that in mind, the role of Director of Sport – co-ordinator of all sporting activity, both competitive and non-competitive, intra- and extra-curricular – is under scrutiny as never before. But how do today’s Directors of Sport define their role, and its fluctuating challenges and opportunities? 

Jane Axford, DoS at Bedford Girls’ School, has a succinct job description for her role, and it’s not limited to results on the field. “My aim is to provide an outstanding sporting education for all our students, and to ensure that each girl has the opportunity to flourish. Sport plays a vital role in helping to develop key skills and learning attributes, such as risk-taking and resilience, open-mindedness and ability to self-reflect. Our aim is not only to excel on the sports field – but to embed these attributes in all of our students.” 

Offering variety is a crucial part of the role, says Pete Bignell, Director of Sport at Abingdon School. “Every school will have its own sporting direction, tailored to its students, its facilities and the path the school’s leadership team wishes to pursue. I want to enhance our sporting provision across the board, to ensure that all boys have a good understanding of their own physical literacy and can, ultimately, discover a passion for physical activity.

“Often, our focus is drawn to the more traditional sports – rugby, hockey, football, cricket, rowing – but we must also provide alternatives. Badminton, swimming, squash, cross-country, athletics, tennis, basketball, karate, judo, water polo and fencing all have a place in our curriculum. I believe that a broad spectrum of opportunities helps to develop more high-class sportsmen, and more students who will continue with some form of sport throughout their lives.”

And how is success in the role measured – is it down to places in league tables, call-ups and regional championships, or something slightly less reducible to facts and figures? Allen Boyd is Director of Sport at Rydal Penrhos School and says: “Primarily, success is determined by sports programmes that pupils want to be part of. That is vital for long-term participation in physical activity, something we need to achieve for the health and wellbeing of our pupils. There is a level of expectation around pupils competing in representative squads, and success in competitions. However, this can never be the sole driving factor as, often, too many academic sacrifices have to be made. It is vital that any sporting success comes second to academic performance, as sport will for most be an interest rather a profession.”

“It is always extremely rewarding to win championships, see our girls selected for national squads, and to be ranked in the top five girls’ schools for sports: however, success is much more about every girl achieving – not just the elite,” adds Jane Axford. “I truly believe that there is no such thing as an ‘un-sporty child’. For me, success is much more about connecting with each of our students at an individual level. It is our role to introduce students to a wide range of sports until they find the right fit. Then, through dedicated application and good teaching, all of our students can thrive. Individual improvement and growth in self-confidence is fundamental to how I measure success.


An equally important measure is how the girls react when they don’t win – how they reflect on their performance, and the strength of character they show when things don’t go their own way. Teaching the girls to be resilient, to get back up and try again, are key elements.”

“Success is what you want it to be: for me, it is all about the individual,” reflects Pete Bignell. “More boys making an informed choice over their own sporting pathway will lead to greater enjoyment, greater levels of participation and, ultimately, greater on-field success. A focus on win ratios, or the number of teams fielded at weekends, can limit the sporting choices available to students. What is more important is how many boys are choosing the opportunities you are placing in front of them – and ensuring that these opportunities provide a clear framework for physical literacy. Ultimately, a sports department should be judged by the overall level of participation across the entire community. A packed fitness suite at lunchtime or after school says a great deal about the value placed on sport at that school.”

What are the main challenges and opportunities of the role – and how are they changing? 

“A major challenge is fitting it all in!” acknowledges Allen Boyd. “The vast majority of our pupils participate in our regular games programme – however, we also run very successful sailing, swimming and skiing programmes which often clash with our team sports. It often means pupils having to make tough choices about what to compete in, and it can be a challenge to field our strongest teams. That said, it does result in more success across a wider range of sports.”

Another issue, Allen Boyd adds, is fitting in all the training around academic studies, especially for those on performance pathways. “The amount of training required to compete at the top level is substantial – but we need to maintain that academic focus so, often, our most able students are doing their strength and conditioning training early in the morning or late into the evening. The impact of some sports on others should also be noted. Cricket is now diminishing in many state schools – and there is no doubt that it is under the cosh in independent schools too. The impact of exam reforms (and increasing number of exams) has seen cricket – a ‘time-heavy’ sport – squeezed from many schools’ sporting offer.”

And how central should sport be to a school’s offer to prospective parents and pupils? Where does it sit alongside, say, academic achievement and personal development?

“Rydal Penrhos always has a strong academic focus but sport, like music, art and drama, carries huge expectations for current and prospective parents,” Allen Boyd reflects. “The values, camaraderie, emotional development and social interaction developed in sport cannot be replicated in other areas. Maintaining healthy and active lifestyles should be a focus at every school.”

“There is growing evidence that physical activity improves academic performance, and helps young people to feel connected to their school and the positive social behaviours within it,” says Sarah Newman, Director of Sport at Manchester High School for Girls. “So many lifelong personal development skills can be taught through sport and physical activity – from self-discipline, confidence and organisation to team playing, prioritising, and developing leadership skills.”

Jett Russell is Athletic Director at ACS Hillingdon International School and comments: “The benefits of team sports carry over into an individual’s future and adulthood. Physically active people tend to have improved cognitive ability, better sleep patterns, improved energy levels throughout the day, longer life expectancy, decreased risk of health problems later in life, improved self-image and confidence… the list goes on.”

“Important life skills are also naturally developed through sport,” Pete Bignell continues. “Athletes learn to work in a team, overcome mental and physical challenges, develop time-management and leadership skills, and once again the list goes on. Sport encourages students to become well-rounded adults and to develop the sorts of skills relevant in any higher education or career path.”

“Sport is very much at the heart of our school,” adds Jane Axford. “Exam results are not enough to ensure success in today’s world, and the skills developed through sports help reinforce the wider attributes young people need to face the challenges and opportunities of the wider world. A big advantage of an all-girls education is the fact that girls’ sport comes first: the 1st XI hockey team are never second to the boys’ rugby team. In this supportive environment, all girls can truly develop and enjoy their sport, at whatever level. With national statistics showing that two-thirds of girls drop out of sport by 14, we want our girls to leave school with the understanding that participation in sport is central to a balanced lifestyle.”

Pete Bignell detects a slight shift in school sporting culture of late as he adds: “Today’s students are not all as physically literate as their contemporaries 15 years ago; there is also a wider range of sports available, and the common room staff cannot all be multi-disciplined. This is not to say that these changes are detrimental to sport: we just need to appreciate, plan for and deliver against them.”

Finally, a big question. Should every school – finances permitting – employ a Director of Sport? 

“In my opinion, yes,” concludes Jane Axford. “The role is vital in ensuring that Bedford maintains a long-term vision for sport. I can ensure that we are constantly looking forward in terms of developing the curriculum, staffing and facilities, as well as building links with other schools and governing bodies. Key to the success of a PE Department is having someone who can take a step back and look at the balance across all disciplines. Sports education is so much more than just teaching rules and technical skills: it is about developing an understanding of wellbeing, and of the importance of good nutrition and psychology.”  


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