Roundtable: directors of sport

Three directors of sport from independent schools discuss the role’s evolution, improving inclusivity and managing parental expectation

This feature was published in Independent School Sport before schools closed due to coronavirus.


Jo Hackett, director of sport, Loughborough Schools Foundation

Simon Sinclair, director of sport, Bedford Modern School

Jim Thompson, director of sport, King’s Ely

Why is the director of sport role valuable and how can it help improve the whole school?

Jo Hackett (JH): The director of sport role has a number of different strands. The role encompasses supporting staff to deliver their best, most diverse and up-to-date curriculum and extra-curricular offer, as well as managing strategy and developing a vision for sport. Today, part of the role for all directors of sport is without a doubt to enhance and develop pupil and staff wellbeing which can bring huge benefits across the whole school.

Simon Sinclair (SS): I think the role has changed significantly over the last few years and is incorporating how an active lifestyle can improve your mental wellbeing. The role itself is a whole-school position, supporting not only the students, but coaching staff and parents into making sure the sports experience is a positive one.

Since starting this role, we have actively encouraged the coaches to get involved in whole-school life, which means taking a tutor group and being a role model for the students. On the other foot we really try and encourage academic staff to take a team sport or just come and watch the students represent the school.

Jim Thompson (JT): For me, a director of sport is hugely valuable! Directors of sport provide, or at least should provide, leadership, vision and a culture for sport across the whole school, whilst also offering a comprehensive and inclusive sports programme tailored for their school. Having someone overseeing sport at a school is vital and the impact you can have on students, staff and parents is enormous. It is a big role but a very rewarding one.

Loughborough Schools Foundation is looking into making its sport offering more environmentally friendly

What major improvements/goals are you working to deliver in sport provision at your institution?

JH: I am in the process of working to make our sporting offer much more sustainable and environmentally friendly – something which has shown to be of high importance for our students. Ensuring all students bring refillable water bottles to all sessions and use the water fountains provided rather than increasing the distribution of plastic bottles of water, is just one example of the schemes we have introduced.

In addition, we are developing more effective communication channels, performance pathways for our focus sports, as well as working on more efficient staffing structures and a comprehensive elite athlete development programme for our top-end performers. We are also looking into the development of key movement patterns and how this can be used to aid students throughout their educational journey.

SS: Sharing good practice is something that we are engaging in at the moment. We have some awesome coaching staff who have bags of experience and sharing these in our department, not only makes us stronger, it also challenges us to get better as a team.

We have introduced a policy to gain the support of parents for weekend sport, which has helped us fulfil a huge sporting programme with mass participation. Increasing our staffing strength and conditioning programme has been a really important aspect of our provision and reviewing our performance programme.

JT: We are always working hard to improve the sports provision here at King’s Ely and are always looking at how we can improve in all areas of sport across the whole school. We offer an inclusive environment, which caters for all ages and abilities. A big goal for us is the development of our sports facilities, which would increase the standard and provision of sport at the school. We have some exciting plans in the pipeline!

How has the job changed since you started and what demands are placed upon your role?

JH: The job is quite different now – the range of sports and activities that are being taught is much higher and the curriculum has a greater diversity to it. The need for elite excellence as well as a comprehensive programme of sport for all within schools, has never been higher.

At the current time there is a huge increase in the number of students who will not participate in sport purely because it is compulsory and evidence suggests that participation in team games is dropping significantly, which in turn reduces the number of teams that schools are able to field. This links to pressures related to pupil engagement and health and safety concerns over contact sport in particular sports such as rugby.

In my role it is vital to communicate as much with the parents as it is with the students and highlight the benefits of competitive and non-competitive sport both physically and psychologically.

Independent schools are still judged on team performance, but more and more the student’s variety and flexibility within a programme are just as important.

SS: Well I’ve only been in post for eight months, so it’s been a fun journey so far. The honeymoon period is over, and the vision and strategy which both staff, students and parents have been involved in has taken shape.

The main areas we are focusing on are a change in timetable to give better playing opportunities for our students, expanding our programme to incorporate more sports and improving the matchday nutritional offer for everyone.

JT: The director of sport role is demanding but it is a hugely enjoyable one. When I first started, the job was very admin-based, but now we have heads of sport in charge of their sport throughout the whole school.

This has been a positive change because it allows them to plan and develop their own programme the way they want to. I offer them help and support while giving them the freedom to run their sport how they wish.

I like to be out supporting the netball girls, rowers, rugby boys, golfers, tennis players, etc. as much as I possibly can. It is challenging trying to be able to get out and support every sport throughout the whole school at certain times, but I do my best.

King’s Ely’s 1st XV rugby team made school history at the end of last year by winning every single match they played in a season

What opportunities do directors of sport have to take advantage of in the independent sector at the moment?

JH: Sport in independent schools is regarded so highly in the day-to-day running of the school, as well as for the emotional and physical development of students, so it is vital that we harness this and ensure that all students have a positive experience to engage in sport which will work to promote a happy, healthy and active lifestyle for the future.

SS: Supporting wellbeing within the school. Physical exercise has a huge role to play in developing students’ wellbeing. Educating them in the benefits exercise has on your mental health and providing suitable environments in which they can do this is integral in schools at present.

Understanding the individuals and that everyone has a different need when it comes to their wellbeing should be at the centre of this. I also think an SEN liaison to any sports department can be a really positive move as coaches can learn more about how best to support the individual.

JT: Sport is always going to be popular in independent schools. I think taking advantage of sports that are growing in popularity like girls’ rugby, football and cricket are big areas we can take advantage of. Also, when it comes to mental health and wellbeing, this is certainly a time to raise awareness and understanding.

What would you say is the best part of your job?

JH: My job is so varied and every day is completely different. I love the interaction with the students. I am so lucky to be working with four schools and different staff across the Foundation, as well as looking at the development of sporting provision throughout a student’s academic life and life beyond school. It is also rewarding to have an opportunity to work closely with the local community and develop strong local links.

SS: The variety of sports on offer and being able to support in so many different areas. One day you can be on the river with the rowing team and the next coaching netball. Someone said to me, “it’s the best job in the world”, and I have to say I’m certainly enjoying it.

I am not going to lie, having the majority of the school holidays to spend time with the family is pretty good as well. The work/life balance can be hard to maintain during term time and therefore the balance this can provide is vital to all of my staff’s lives.

JT: I love sport, so having the opportunity to be a director of sport at a top school like King’s Ely is a privilege.

I very much enjoy leading a great team of sports staff, who also love what they do, and we certainly have a lot of fun doing it! Teaching and coaching some great students across a wide range of sports is also very rewarding.

Becca Scott, a year 9 para athlete from Bedford Modern School

How can directors of sport help to improve inclusivity in sport?

JH: Sport is about offering something different and varying the options to ensure that we are maximising engagement and interest. It is no longer good enough to only offer team games, there is no ‘one size fits all’ and so sport in independent schools must cater for this.

To maximise inclusivity within the Foundation, we have been working to grow the number of teams and using techniques such as naming teams with animal names rather than traditional A team or B team, etc.

It is my firm belief that schools should follow what I term the ‘Roger Federer model’ where students should not specialise until their teenage years at the very earliest. Up to this point everything should be about opportunity, positive experience, enjoyment, and immersing themselves in sport.

I believe this will not only develop inclusivity but also assist in the long-term with sporting excellence.

SS: I think it’s important that we understand what students want from sport. It’s easy to offer the team sports, but by asking the students what they would like to see and moving away from the more traditional independent sports programme is something that we need to be proactive on.

You only have to look at the new sports being introduced at the Olympics to realise that we have to be more diverse in our approach. One of our aims should be to develop excellence, but it is just as important to develop a life-long enjoyment in a number of activities.

JT: They can promote and oversee inclusivity throughout their sports programme. This is vital in school sport and it is important that directors of sport offer an inclusive sports programme, which caters for all ages and abilities. At King’s Ely, it is not all about the 1st XV rugby team or 1st netball team. We celebrate the successes of all our students and teams, whatever level or ability they might be.

How do you manage parental expectation?

JH: All any parent wants are the best opportunities for their son or daughter, and therefore it is crucial to have open and honest lines of communication. Parents can, on occasion, have unrealistic expectations for their children but usually if you are clear and consistent, they are very understanding and when they can see their son or daughter improving, they are very receptive to this.

SS: We have set up workshops to help engage parents in our programme. We’ve had some support from Richard Shorter ( who has experience in supporting schools, but also other workshops, including the use of our sports psychologists and other areas of education.

JT: Clear and effective communication is vital with parents. All of the sports staff at King’s Ely work their backsides off across the whole school six to seven days a week. We do everything possible to offer the best sports programme across the whole school.

Cross-country runners from Bedford Modern School

If you could sit in a room with your peers, what topics would you want to talk to them about, and why?

JH: Funnily enough I did this last week and the main topics were: the future of team games within the independent sector, how to engage staff and pupils, the future of Saturday fixtures, and finally the liaison with elite sports academies. Sport is evolving in independent schools, and there is no longer an expectation that sport is compulsory and therefore everyone will play, in a traditional sporting offer.

School sport must be varied, exciting and interesting and then students will want to play and engage with the programme. In addition to this I would be keen to see if any school has a solution to the age-old issues of ‘sport for all’ versus elite sport – an issue in every independent school across the country and one that every school has to meet in order to engage all students, maximise their interest and develop a life-long love of physical activity.

Sport in independent schools is certainly a changing canvas, so it is always interesting as to how other schools are approaching these issues.

SS: We already do this! An example is the conference I went to last week where a large number of directors of sport were able to share good practice and discuss how we can continue to improve and grow our programme.

JT: The topics would range from plans for the week, fantasy football/rugby league standing, areas of development, staffing for the week ahead and when we are next going out for a drink together. All of these are important discussions when working in a team environment.

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