Eat, play, sleep: independent school sport

Simon Fry compares the sporting facilities and achievements at different types of independent school

Sport is a major part of the curriculum at virtually all independent schools, so parents seeking a school for their sporty child have much choice. Websites and open days provide information, and it is important to consider how schools differentiate what they offer and how the sporting timetable and sporting experience varies for children at day schools, boarding schools, and schools offering day and boarding schooling. 

Dame Allan’s School, Newcastle, comprises junior, boys’, girls’ and sixth form day schooling. Caroline McBain, Director of Sport, said, “The outdoor facilities make a real impression as you approach the schools. We are lucky to have extensive facilities on our grounds. Set within a residential area, they really set the scene of Dame Allan’s and create a wow factor as you enter the site. They are very aesthetically pleasing and on match days it’s great to see them alive and active!” 

Among other achievements, three squash teams and its senior netball team reached national finals in 2016–17. Support from the wider school body and senior leadership team ensures the school excels in sport through its ethos and culture, specialist expertise and coaching and the commitment of staff and pupils.  

Facilities include a pavilion, sports hall with fitness/strength and conditioning suite, a gymnasium, dance studio and outdoor pitches and courts for rugby, football, tennis and netball.     

Caroline added, “We seek to make the most of all the resources and facilities available to us which, in turn, challenge us to think creatively and in an innovative way. This involves and includes strong links within the community, whilst also seeking to maintain a focus on our core performance sports.”

Under the new leadership of Louisa Taylor, Director of Sport at Wycombe Abbey, a girls’ boarding school in High Wycombe, the school has enjoyed national success in a range of team and individual competitions from racket and equestrian sports to aquatics and martial arts. 

Louisa said, “Boarding allows pupils to factor sport into their daily routine with ease, the logistics of living at school in term-time gives them more time to train or enjoy sport recreationally. Sport is on tap for our girls, and for those seeking to reach a high level in their sporting pursuits, easy access to training facilities helps them balance their academic study with their training.”   

Wycombe Abbey’s boarders enjoy other benefits, according to Louisa. “Wycombe Abbey’s ‘aspiring athlete programme’ is a mentor-support programme which teaches girls important performance factors such as nutrition, strength and conditioning, injury prevention and sports psychology,” continued Louise. As well as a large number of team sports opportunities, a weekly house games afternoon encourages all pupils to participate in competitive sport such as lacrosse, netball, cheerleading or dance. Pupils get vital experience of teamwork and leadership and this really promotes ‘house spirit’ and camaraderie within each of our boarding houses.”

The school has two members of the England Women’s lacrosse team, including the team captain on staff as well as the manager for the Scottish Women’s lacrosse team and a variety of top-tier coaches in sports such as tennis, fencing and squash. 

Louisa said, “We really do have incredibly talented girls at Wycombe Abbey. Equally, the level of success our teams have had and the large provision of participation-based sporting activities we provide would not happen without the hard work and dedication of such equally talented staff.”

St John’s School, Leatherhead caters for boarders and day pupils and many benefit from the use of the gym out of school hours. The boarding environment maintains their focus and allows them to always have somebody there to train with – be that a friend or a member of staff who is willing to spend the evening motivating them to train. Pupils also enjoy – and gain from – the experience of playing against touring teams. 

The school nurtures independence, according to St John’s Housemaster of West, Huw Jones. “Building resilience in young people is vital and involvement in a rich and varied extra-curricular programme grants access to multiple forms of feedback and helps to highlight the importance of effort and self-regulation.” 

“Sport is the very backbone of St John’s culture,” added Lauren Moors, Director of Sport. “All pupils get fully involved in the sports programme, regardless of ability. For those who do not participate in the major sports for that term there is the ‘Alternative Games Programme’ allowing pupils to participate in a range of activities at a more recreational level. There are at least three sessions weekly, plus fixtures for major sports on a Saturday. Every pupil, parent, academic staff, support staff and external provider takes pride in wearing our Eagle badge. From our catering to our grounds, from our coaching to our players, our aim is to be the best. A number of former pupils now play professional sport.”

A standout year of sporting achievement in 2016–17 included winning the Rosslyn Park Rugby Sevens National Vase, becoming girls’ county hockey champions, the junior boys’ athletics team being district champions and the unbeaten U16 football team crowned Southern Independent League champions.  

Durham School’s sports facilities include a swimming pool, sports hall, artificial turf for hockey and tennis, rugby and cricket pitches, a boat house on the River Wear housing Durham School Boat Club, two strength and conditioning gyms, an ergo room and cardiovascular suite alongside several multi-purpose rooms. Facilities are open from 6.55am for boarders and day pupils.

The school offers boarding for pupils aged 11–18 from the UK and abroad. With flexible options available, children can choose to be a full boarder or just stay through the week. The houses are the heart of pupils’ lives and the school aims for all boarders to experience a warm and supportive atmosphere, each run by an experienced and dedicated team. Boarders support each other’s achievements on the sports field, in concerts, on stage and in the examination hall. 

Kath Rochester, director of co-curricular, concluded, “There is a real passion for sport across the whole school and a huge determination to succeed. There are opportunities to participate, learn new sports or take sport to the highest level possible. Every member of our school community contributes to our success, to promote and maintain our sporting prowess be it as a performer, a coach, official, volunteer or supporter.” 

Sporty children seeking to excel will find innumerable facilities and opportunities open to them at independent schools offering day schooling, boarding or both. Consideration should be given to which type of school best supports the pupil’s living preferences, abilities, potential and aspirations. The right decision could lead to a professional career or even Olympic glory.  


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