Over the last three years, the relatively small Cranleigh has won national titles in hockey, rugby, cricket, kayaking, riding and biathlon. This year alone they have already won the Rugby Sevens Championships at Rosslyn Park; won the Girls’ Indoor and Outdoor Hockey titles at U16; scooped medals in three of the four swimming events at the Bath Cup and won riding’s coveted Finegold Cup.
A belief in breadth
It’s imperative we fight against the pernicious myth that the only route to success is early specialisation. For every Andre Agassi whose achievements were slavishly bought as a toddler hammering balls over the net, there are a dozen others who delighted in variety throughout their teenage years. A 15 year-old Mo Farah might have told you his favourite sport was football; six of the GB Gold Medallists from London 2012 hadn’t even started their event before they left school. Engagement in a range of sports keeps children fresh, reduces injury and forestalls burnout. That’s a model personified by Cranleigh’s Director of Admissions who, prior to picking up his hockey gold at the Seoul Olympics, was on the professional tennis circuit! It doesn’t just apply to sport: seven of the girls’ hockey squad mentioned above rushed back from their last match to a rehearsal for the end-of-term musical, Les Misérables.
Sport for all
If sport is a force for good, shouldn’t everyone get the chance to play? At Cranleigh we put out 17 netball teams – more than many schools twice our size – and we regularly have 40 teams in action on Saturdays. They’re all viewed as equally important. Our football 3rd XI’s fifth consecutive unbeaten season enjoyed as much praise in assembly as the girls making National Finals for the 5th year in a row. It’s just as significant to those students so it should be to us. Total engagement applies to staff too, and while it can be appealing to outsource coaching, experience suggests that teachers who really know their youngsters help develop their talents better. So, our Headmaster coaches shot-putt, the Director of Studies teaches tennis, the Chaplain runs a cricket team and so on.
Don’t think of sport as an ‘extra’
In a society fixated by league tables, it can be tempting to view sport as a hindrance to academic excellence; teachers know this to be gibberish – students who are enthusiastic about school because they’re devoted to their sport will be more motivated in their maths, physics and French lessons. It’s no coincidence that when we were ranked as the third best independent sports school in the country last year, our academic value-added was also the third best nationally and our average A level grade was an A*/A.
Play the best
A fixture list should be as challenging as possible – tough for junior sides overwhelmed by the sheer physical advantage of much bigger schools, but the benefits in the long term are incalculable. We sometimes lose 60-70% of our U14 rugby fixtures but with the same cohort win 80 percent by Sixth Form. It’s an experience that doesn’t seem to have harmed the ten former pupils currently playing professional rugby, or indeed the dozen current pupils who have been selected to play for England in different sports.
Clubs are there for the benefit of the children, not the other way round
Club sport is an essential ingredient in the development of our top players, but you need your Heads of Sport to carefully balance each pupil’s commitments to avoid over-stretching them. Again, a close relationship with the individual is all important. On any given Saturday, a student might get more out of playing alongside their schoolmates than by sitting on the bench for their club, and your coaches need to have the credibility with the clubs to resist any pressure and assert the best interests of the child.
Sport is constantly developing. Of course, you need to continually invest in the best facilities and equipment and keep an eye on the latest innovations, but pupils change too – how else can that scrawny C-team winger find themselves years later as a National Championship winner? Our Directors of Sport coach across the full seven to 18 age range, nurturing the talent to ensure that every pupil gets a chance to fulfil their potential. Again, it comes down to that belief that sport, like education in general, is ultimately about giving all children the chance to be the best they can be.
Simon Bird is Assistant Deputy Head at Cranleigh School, Surrey