Surveying the landscape

Steve Wright pores over the findings of a survey on school sports provision by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference

This spring saw the publication of the results of an extensive survey on school sports provision, carried out by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference. Responses were received from 169 of the HMC’s 260 member schools – and the results make for illuminating reading.

At a time of widespread concerns over obesity and lack of wellbeing amongst young people and decreased sport in the state sector, the survey – the first inaugural national sports survey of leading UK independent schools – reveals that:

● Independent schools are leading the way in keeping today’s children fit and healthy, with 5.4 hours a week on average played in over 40 sports – including games, PE and practice sessions. This compares with around two hours per week in state schools

● Independent schools have in recent years broadened the range of sporting activities and the range of team sports

● From the 169 schools surveyed, an impressive 1,400 pupils had played for their country – around eight per school

● Schools are now seeing high levels of participation among girls in sports like netball and hockey: but boys still dominate in the traditional sports of cricket, football and rugby

● Team sport is alive and well, with a staggering 30,000 fixtures a year in the 169 schools surveyed – that’s nearly 1,000 a week, involving almost 10,000 pupils

● Health-based facilities and activities are on the increase alongside consistent provision of a wide range of team sports played at all levels.

Predictions for the future, meanwhile, were in the main positive – with one caveat:

● This success could be put under threat because of a continuing examination pressure

● The ongoing health and fitness agenda means games rather than matches will increase

● There will be more understanding of the link between personal skills and sport

We’ve pored over those key findings in the company of Steffan Griffiths, Head of Norwich School and Deputy Chairman of the HMC Sports Sub-Committee.

Steffan Griffiths (above)

Finding: Independent school pupils do, on average, almost triple the amount of sport compared with pupils in state schools

Q: How would you recommend that state schools set about closing this gap? 

Steffan Griffiths: This is a tricky issue and I should be nervous about prescribing solutions to colleagues in the state sector who do an excellent job, often in spite of unhelpful political interference. The ground-breaking change would be if the government put more emphasis on physical activity, particularly sport, in its allocation of resources and its inspection criteria.

The Primary School Sports Premium has been a step in the right direction for the former, but it is the latter which would make all parties think about the systemic reform which would enable schools of all types to rethink their timetables and staffing provision. With increasingly limited resources, schools have to focus on what they will be judged by – and that is currently dominated by measurable academic data rather than qualitative, holistic assessments.

In the shorter term and with existing challenges, creative partnerships with clubs might provide at least part of a solution, not least to make the most of the shorter school day. It is certainly a model which works well across Europe, where young people get much of their sporting activity from clubs.

Q: Can independent schools help – by sharing facilities, experience, manpower? 

SG: Though it may not suit politicians to think in such a way, independent schools are wired to think collaboratively, so much of the sharing referred to in the question already does happen. Such partnerships work best when they develop organically at local level rather than being imposed centrally, so I should like to see more facilitation of links.

My school does a good deal of collaborative activity of various sorts, including sharing of facilities, manpower and experience. However, I should welcome the view of an expert to look at what we currently do and suggest ways in which we could develop our practice, especially through the sharing of good ideas from other areas. It is therefore a regret that the Independent State School Partnerships scheme was discontinued, as that seemed helpfully to bring different sectors together.

Finding: From the 169 schools, 1,400 pupils had played for their country: 7,000 had represented their county

Q: How crucially should this sort of representation be viewed? Should it be seen as an end in itself, or simply a happy by-product of excellent sports coaching?

SG: Like most forms of school activity, the shape one thinks of is a pyramid: and having people towards the top helps to create aspiration throughout. I should therefore say that such elite sporting representation is a good thing, not least because it is another significant strand that independent schools can contribute to UK plc.

We know that our schools are well-regarded globally because they are perceived to offer quality provision, and our aspiration to sporting excellence forms part of that brand.

In terms of less obvious benefits, individuals pursuing something to elite level – whether that be academic work, sport, music or drama – serve as useful role models to the rest of the community and are particularly influential because they are of the same age as the rest of the pupil body.

That said, support for such pupils must be balanced with encouraging participation for all and preparation for life, of which more below. Devoting too much resource to the top of the pyramid is a sure way to invite comment from other parents and pupils!

Q: Are there any surefire ways to get your pupils selected for county or national sides? 

SG: I think trying to second-guess such processes is problematic and there are legion stories from parents and pupils of unfair treatment. I should prefer to leave such criticism to the touchline and supper-party circuit, with schools seeking instead to concentrate on getting the processes right within the school and making sure our pupils are getting a good educational journey in the context of their overall development.

Finding: Schools maintain interest and participation in sport from girls and boys of all ages, with consistent participation across gender, ages and day and boarding schools

Q: How should schools keep pupils of all ages and both genders interested? Do girls and boys, or ages 7 and 15, respond better to different training techniques?

SG: Keeping sport as a key part of the curriculum is important: encouragement of participation has to be structural. The other factor is trying to make your programme flexible enough to meet the child where he or she is at any given point of their school career: team versus individual; elite versus participation; competitive versus sport-for-life; familiar versus new.

This obviously changes over time as children (of either sex) become young adults and learn what role sport might play in their lives. The overall programme needs to fit into available resources: but staff can be creative with what is offered. Indeed, it is no bad thing to show pupils that a good workout need not take long or involve expensive equipment. Ideally, one is trying to provide each pupil with a route to maintain the physical as part of their lives when they leave school.

Even those who are not ‘sporty’ (whatever that means) need to be aware of the desirability of a healthy lifestyle, including regular physical activity. The focus in education on resilience, wellbeing, mindfulness, mental health and related issues only strengthens the importance of such provision, because of the increasing awareness of the need for a joined-up, holistic approach.

Finding: This success could be put under threat because of a continuing examination pressure

Q: How might you safeguard against this potential threat?

SG: Depressing as it might be, greater emphasis on physical provision in the inspection structure remains important to encourage schools to provide a rounded education. Apart from that, it is for Heads to make a clear statement on sport’s continuing importance in the summer term, and to maintain structures which give it space to flourish.

Finding: The ongoing health and fitness agenda means that games rather than matches will increase

Q: Can you explain the rationale here?

SG: The days of multiple age-group teams in compulsory sports are diminishing, as the need to serve the interests of the individual increase. Many would prefer to be in, say, the kayaking team, or pursuing an individual fitness programme, than playing in the U14F rugby team. However, schools in our sector will continue to foreground team sports because they are fun and offer so many rich lessons for life.

Last word to John Claughton, Chair of HMC Sports Committee and Chief Master of King Edward’s School Birmingham: “We commit huge time and effort to sport every day, not just because we always have done or even to get gold medals. Sport teaches our pupils how to win, how to lose and the courage to persist through teamwork and personal resilience.

“We are also committed to helping increase the amount of sport for state school pupils and have asked the Department for Education to better support and facilitate an upscaling of the significant partnership work which is already taking place.

“This is crucial for all pupils as we know from experience that sport can be a driver for healthy lifestyles, promote social inclusion and develop leadership qualities and self-esteem.”



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