School sport v Covid 2021

Throughout 2020 directors of sport had to change their tactics when it came to physical education. But how are they planning to tackle what 2021 might bring? Nicky Adams finds out

From the total lockdown in the spring term when Joe Wicks became the nation’s PE teacher, to an autumn term back at school but with stringent requirements for social distancing, equipment cleaning and hand sanitising, 2020 was the year that PE became a creative subject.

“Our sports plans have been made, changed and even ripped up as we have responded to the varying guidelines that have been issued,” says Jonathan Turner, director of sport at The Dragon School.

“However, in the midst of this extraordinary adversity, there has also been great opportunity. ‘Improvise, adapt and overcome’ has, without doubt, become the mantra.”

Certainly, like all good captains, directors of sport have had no choice but to pick up the ball and run with it.

“Despite the short-term restrictions, frustrations and endless precautions, it is not impossible that the pandemic might also ultimately be judged as a period which allowed school sport to reboot itself, adjust priorities and emerge stronger – and more relevant – than ever before,” says Neil Rollings, chairman of the Professional Association of Directors of Sport (PADSIS) and managing director of Independent Coach Education.

“In fact, the power of collaboration, and of creativity, has proved to be considerable,” he adds.

Focus has shifted from fixtures to skill acquisition at The Dragon School


Resourceful, resilient, creative

Upping their game in the face of adversity, directors of sport in independent schools large and small have drawn on all of their skills to come up with programmes that have complied with the restrictions, moved their students’ physical education forward and supported their development in other ways too.

“Our response has had to be resourceful, resilient and creative,” says Turner. The Dragon School last year missed out on more than 300 rugby and hockey fixtures. “The lack of external competitive sport has presented a challenge, but we have been able to place greater emphasis on skill acquisition and individual development.

“We also put on vibrant internal competitions to replace the void left by an absence of fixtures – the Dragon Nations Cup followed the format of the Autumn Nations Cup with a team for each participating country, and we also had The Dragon Super 7s hockey.

Our sports plans have been made, changed and even ripped up as we have responded to the varying guidelines that have been issued – Jonathan Turner, The Dragon School

“A new Saturday morning enrichment curriculum, Dragon QUEST, has seen children learning paddle boarding, polo, ultimate frisbee, Aussie rules football and golf. We have organised fixtures for the spring term, but have devised contingencies – adaptability, flexibility, patience and innovation remain our watch words.”

Inter-house matches have replaced the usual long fixture list at Rugby School. “We wanted to retain the excitement that competition brings,” explains director of sport Debbie Skene.

“In January we’ll continue with our ‘return to match fitness’ programme, based on fitness level data collected over the last three years, as well as weekly sessions covering fitness, technical coaching, tactical coaching and matchplay experience, plus a choice of 16 different sporting activities every week – adapted so they can be delivered safely.”

Students at Habs Boys’ School are experiencing fewer injuries due to extra work on their movement


Best use of facilities and staff

Variety has been the spice of sporting life at Cranleigh School too, where director of sport Andrew Houston has devised a new sporting programme to make the best use of the school’s facilities and staff to keep the students active.

“Rather than pupils choosing one sport for the whole term,” explains Houston, “they now select new activities for every four-week phase, with the option to include a ‘variety session’, which introduces them to a new sport. We’ll continue with the programme this term and may well allow pupils to choose two sports to train for each week.”

With no hockey fixtures to oversee, England Hockey’s Coach of the Year 2019 and director of sport at Truro High School, Kat Redd, had to think outside of the box to keep her students fit and active. “Our approach has been a bit less traditional,” she says.

“We have made adaptations to our curriculum to allow for as much pupil interaction as possible and have introduced wellbeing sessions into our KS4 curriculum to allow the girls to be together in a safe environment and interact face-to-face.

“The swimming pool is a Covid-safe environment where girls can be with their friends while exercising in an informal way – participation in swimming groups has risen to 100% – so this term we will stick with the ideologies of high levels of activity in every lesson, high participation at extra-curricular clubs and in-house key stage fixtures.”

As a full boarding school, Sedbergh has also been pushing boundaries. “We continue to make the most of our stunning surroundings and ensure our students are challenged, not just through sport, but also through an extensive outdoor activities programme,” says director of sport Stuart Oliver.

“Rock climbing, caving, canoeing and sailing went down really well last term, alongside the House Rugby Sevens touch and cricket training on grass.

“We have also released some of the older students from games lessons so they can help coach the younger pupils, which worked particularly well in netball. The Lent term is traditionally our multi-sport term – we will carry on with fell running, as well as swimming, shooting, basketball and fives.”

A new programme at Cranleigh School sees students select different activities every four weeks. Photo: Martin Williamson


Get out and play

As at most schools, PE and sport has been confined to year group bubbles at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, where director of sport Ryan McIntosh and head of PE Dan Kerry have worked together to organise in-school competitive sport on Saturdays.

“Our students have been very accepting of the limitations,” says McIntosh. “Inevitably, we have had to compromise on the time and opportunity to access our sports facilities, but by and large they have enjoyed the chance to get out and play, and we are offering a huge range of activities, including mass participation in ‘HabsDash’, a 3.5km community run.

“Our students are reporting fewer injuries thanks to extra work on their movement and fitness and increased rest time, and the acceleration of planned changes to our PE curriculum to increase monitoring of physical and mental wellbeing means they are developing core skills faster and are becoming more comfortable expressing themselves through play.”

At Berkhamsted School, directors of sport David Gibson and Jo Vila have been firmly focused on students’ enjoyment and participation in activities. “The lack of external fixtures and competition has given our pupils time to develop their own individual performance without the added pressure of a weekly selection,” says Gibson.

“It has allowed staff to focus on technique, skill development, game awareness and matchplay away from the pressures of what the next fixture might bring, the preparation for which can sometimes deter from following a programme of study.”

Sedbergh School ensures students are challenged through sport and other outdoor activities


Positive experience

Record numbers of students have turned out for weekly training sessions at Berkhamsted.

“We’ve put a bigger emphasis on strength and conditioning as part of a return to sport programme,” says Vila, “and staged informal competitions in all of our representative sports, within year group bubbles with a higher staff-to-pupil ratio to allow for smaller working groups, so our aim is to continue to facilitate our students’ positive experience.”

Emma Spybey, head of PE at Windlesham House School in West Sussex, last year took the opportunity to totally rethink sport at the school. “We looked at our sports provision with a fresh pair of eyes, re-evaluated and started again,” she explains.

“We decided that participating in mixed sports was a real advantage for our pupils, so the boys are now also playing netball and the girls are playing rugby. We have built a sense of community and it has been empowering for the children to work together as a team and enjoy sport for themselves rather than become fixated on the results.”

The pandemic prompted a total re-evaluation of sports at Windlesham House


Speaking to sports teaching staff every day, the Independent Schools Association’s national sports officer, Scott Brand, has been hugely impressed by the way PE and sport has been adapted, and the benefits for students these changes have brought.

“The creativity of the schools and their pupils has been truly amazing to see,” he says. “They are overcoming the challenges being thrown at them from all angles and there has been a fair amount of flipped learning going on, which is a massive developmental gain, giving pupils more confidence.”

They are overcoming the challenges being thrown at them from all angles and there has been a fair amount of flipped learning going on, which is a massive developmental gain – Scott Brand, Independent Schools Association

The gift of self-assurance is undoubtedly just as valuable off the pitch as on it, and it seems clear that students have benefited in many ways from fresh approaches to their PE and games lessons. Resilience, supportiveness, leadership and enthusiasm.

​“There have been so many positives,” says Kat Redd of Truro High School, “but the biggest ones for me are the obvious enthusiasm and engagement in school sport, and students’ recognition of its importance to the curriculum and to society.”

In January Rugby School will continue its ‘return to match fitness’ programme


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