Opening school sports facilities to the community

Opening up your sports resources to the local community brings a host of benefits, as Bernadette John discovers

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

Some independent schools have been sharing their pitches and pools for many years. Others had to start playing ball after government hints of legislation if schools didn’t do more to justify their charity status (and the tax breaks that come with it).

Now the Independent Schools Council (ISC) reports a healthy 84% of its schools working in partnerships with state counterparts. But this is charity 2020 style, and schools which are leading the way in partnerships are clear that it’s not about the paupers receiving sustenance from the ‘better offs’, but rather working to the mutual benefit of all in the community.

“The best projects are two-way enterprises with our pupils, alumni, parents and teachers all benefiting themselves from being involved. We obviously hope what we do is helpful, but we are keen to help because we know that we learn and grow greatly in the process too,” says Toby Grieves, director of sport at Norwich School.

Norwich runs an imaginative range of sports fixtures which truly reaches all corners of the community. There’s a sports academy for elite athletes between 15 and 18; a ‘Discover Your Ability’ event to help both able-bodied and disabled pupils realise their potential through sports activities; an annual Intergenerational Sports Day, with attendees aged from 0 to 90 years; a cricket academy; and a host of sporting festivals.

St Albans School is in the ninth year of a partnership swimming programme, which provides lessons for around 360 local primary school pupils each year.

Sixth formers volunteer as lifeguards, as well as going out to help as sports assistants in primary schools.

“The primary school children get more individual attention and help where it is needed, and it is valuable for our sixth formers – who learn leadership skills, develop their confidence and get to teach not only their own chosen sports but other sports and games,” says Jane Roberts, head of partnership and community link.

Scaling up their sports offer means they can offer a much wider range of sporting activity to their own pupils, King’s Ely says. The school shares its sports facilities with a number of local sports clubs and other schools, and links with Norwich City FC, which provides high-level coaching in return.

It has a “hugely positive impact” according to Jim Thompson, director of sport. “We promote the clubs and partnerships to all of our students, so more of them can join these local clubs, be active and enjoy the opportunity to do more sport on top of what they already get at school.”

‘Discover Your Ability’ events help all young people realise their sporting potential at Norwich School

Coaches up their game

Other schools highlight the useful development of their own staff’s teaching practice. “For our coaching staff, it is great from a pedagogy perspective – to be challenged in coaching different abilities and to learn from other coaches,” says director of sport at Dulwich College, Phil Greenaway.

A new and bold initiative this academic year from Dulwich has been to co-ordinate its timetables with neighbouring City Heights Academy, enabling the academy’s year 7 students to join the termly carousel of rugby, football and cricket.

Abingdon School shares its pool, sports grounds and athletics facilities, and also runs a five-week beginners’ rugby course for years 7 and 8 from nearby Fitzharrys School.

Rob Southwell-Sander, Abingdon School’s director of partnerships, agrees about the benefits to staff, saying: “Working collaboratively with some of the excellent schools we have across the town allows us to learn from our partners, especially in areas such as pedagogy and professional development. By sharing knowledge of training, teaching practice, the curriculum and systems, everyone can improve standards.”

Southwell-Sander also welcomes opportunities for “sharing features of Abingdon that we are most proud of”. Showcasing the school’s sports facilities to local families can be a handy marketing tool. Parents of sporty children in the state sector coming to spectate can be lured by seeing the far superior facilities and coaching on offer.

We obviously hope what we do is helpful, but we are keen to help in part because we know that we learn and grow greatly in the process too

Grieves gleefully reels off a list of the elite players who were attracted to join Norwich School following partnership events. One boy was spotted at outreach tag rugby sessions.

“He had natural talent; exceptionally quick, good agility but had never played rugby before. He was invited to the Junior Rugby Festival held at our playing fields, which was refereed by members of our 1st XV. This was a great demonstration of what was available at Norwich for sport and he ended up joining the school.”

Another star cricketer was spotted during joint events. “He applied to the school off the back of these experiences and has ended up an A-team sportsman in all of our major sports.”

And apart from enticing prospective parents, there’s also a PR payback from the local community through opening the doors. Felsted has been hiring out facilities either for free or at favourable rates for many years, which has proven to be “a good way of preventing any misconceptions the local community might have about an independent school,” according to Charlie Knightley, director of sport.

Asked about the key benefits of the programmes, Dulwich’s Greenaway lists breaking down barriers. “Boys are challenged to communicate with other children from different backgrounds,” he says.

Sitting among a mixed community of leafy West London streets and social housing blocks, Latymer Upper School is keen not to segregate its pupils.

Sport provides an easy common ground, as Tallan Gill, director of sport says: “Our students enjoy and greatly benefit from partnerships and we pride ourselves as a diverse school that is rounded and grounded.”

Latymer hosts and manages a number of sporting events where local schools are invited to compete, as well as the MCC Foundation Cricket Hub, which is specifically for state school children. A newly appointed head of rugby is charged with broadening the school’s outreach programme and is coaching in local schools as well as offering free rugby camps in the holidays.

Felsted shares its fine cricket pitches with sporting academies such as Essex Cricket

Finding the right match

To the schools which are considering dipping new toes in their pool water, the old hands advise a slow and steady – and thoroughly planned – move into partnerships.

“Don’t be afraid of starting small, reviewing each term and developing incrementally,” says Dr Cameron Pyke, deputy master external at Dulwich College. He recommends focusing on a small group of schools where you can make real impact, rather than a scattergun approach which runs the risk of spreading your resources too thinly.

By dealing with too many partners, you can run out of facility slots, Knightley says. “This needs to be identified early to allow a smooth relationship,” he warns.

You also need to think through the effects of round-the-clock demand on your grounds and equipment: “It can put your facilities under a huge usage pressure and the wear and tear needs to be taken into consideration for any forward budget and maintenance planning,” Knightley says.

Don’t be afraid of starting small, reviewing each term and developing incrementally

At Norwich School, Grieves says they have found it more effective to open the doors and share facilities, rather than travelling out to other areas. And for those who are used to working with independent school classes, he points out that you need to prepare for working with larger class sizes, and to plan for appropriate staff ratios.

And don’t forget the paperwork, warns Knightley. “It is imperative that DBS checks and any compliance regulations are dealt with and followed.”

But most of all, schools need to examine why they are establishing partnerships and what the intended benefits are to both them and their partners. While independent schools may be pushed into it by the threat of the taxman’s stick, that motivation alone will not result in happy partnerships.

Talk to potential partners and understand how they would like to benefit, “as their reasons will be unique to them”, says Roberts.

The most effective community partnerships will be about more than just sport, says Southwell-Sander.

“Do it for the right reasons. Sports facilities sharing should form a small part of a wider reciprocal partnership that covers teaching and learning, student leadership staff CPD and pastoral care.”

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