There’s a rich diet of alternative sports at our independent schools. Whether played for fun or taken to elite level, the end goal is to help every pupil find the sports they love

Sports are a mainstay of independent school life – but it’s important to recognise that what they do goes way beyond the mainstream games. And with good reason, because not every student fits the mould for them. This fact is acknowledged in the foreword to the 2014 Ofsted report ‘Going the extra mile: Excellence in competitive school sport’, in which the then Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw name-checked Alan Wilkinson, PE teacher to a keen would-be footballer called Mo Farah. Wilshaw highlighted that it was Wilkinson who steered the Olympic legend away from the beautiful game – based on a hunch that the lad would go so much further on the running track.

“Off season, Brighton College hones team skills in its double-height sports hall, but once the sun comes out, they head down to Sussex’s most famous seafront”

No one can have any doubt of the positive influence that a steer in the right direction has on potential elite sportsmen and sportswomen, and this Ofsted report was highlighting the rich and broad opportunities independent schools offer in that regard, how this positively impacts whole-school culture as well as sporting success – and also considering how all schools might improve their sports offer.

Brighton College
Brighton College has a strong following for fencing, as well as beach volleyball (pictured top)

When we think about independent school sport, the tendency is to think of the classic team games – rugby, hockey, netball, cricket. But the menu of sports opportunities is far richer and broader, and ultimately feeds into success at national and international events. Sports directors recognise that not everyone is a natural for mainstream team games, and it could be the individual tests and endurance challenges – or the less usual team sports – that ignite enthusiasm and reveal talent.

“For most independent schools, the menu of sports opportunities is rich and broad – this ultimately feeds into success at national and international events “

A drive for excellence is really important here, so too the fun factor. For instance, Brighton College makes full use of its beach access by hosting the annual Independent School Beach Volleyball Competition. Off season, the school hones team skills in its double-height sports hall, but once the summer comes, they head down to Sussex’s most famous seafront for proper play. Brighton is deadly serious in its endeavours – the school is current Independent School champion. The College also has highly active sports clubs in fencing (one female pupil was recently selected for the U17 GB squad in Cade Sabre) and in water polo, where it regularly competes in tournaments.

Dulwich College
Dulwich College students love playing water polo, and it is aiming high in its training and playing opportunities

Dulwich College may not be on the waterfront, but its students also love water polo. Boys are introduced to it as a lunchtime club in Years 5 and 6 – provided they can swim well in deep water – and it’s become a really popular sport, with six friendlies against local opponents each year. When they get to senior school, there’s the opportunity to compete in all age groups within the Schools League and the English Schools Swimming Association national event. Teams are coached by former international competitors and have been on international tours. Surprisingly, Team GB remains one of the most successful competitors in Olympic Water Polo historically, but the last time we carried home gold was 1920 so there’s a real motivation to aim high. Like Brighton, Dulwich College also has a strong track record in fencing. Recently, it celebrated the achievements of Old Alleynian Oliver Lam-Watson, who was part of the silver and bronze-medal winning GB wheelchair fencing teams at the Tokyo Paralympics.

Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh has a dizzying array of sporting strengths, including shooting

Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh honoured a win in the Olympic arena even more recently. Merchistonians Hammy McMillan and Grant Hardie won silver for curling at the Beijing Winter Olympics. Notably, the women’s curling team led by Eve Muirhead (alumna of the independent Morrison’s Academy in Crieff) brought home gold. These were the only two medals for the nation picked up in Beijing, and so all the more likely to generate interest and enthusiasm for the sport among young people over the next few years.

Merchiston Castle has a great tradition in another Scottish sporting invention, with a highly regarded Golf Academy that enables talented players to pursue their sport without compromising on their education. The school approach is broad – it has a strong reputation in many individual and team sports – and with a clear focus on bringing on all the talents. The school is fortunate in its facilities and location, so sailing (at a club on the Firth of Forth) and shooting on its own range and within the extensive school grounds are both popular. These are two sports in which Team GB has a good track record at international events.

Fantastic sports – going beyond the usual team games
Climbing at Merchiston Castle – as all sports directors know, their main role is to develop a lifelong love of physical activity

Sports staff at every school work hard to bring on the most able and rightly celebrate each win by a student or alumni, but all will acknowledge that it’s a lesser, albeit vital, part of their remit. All research points to the same thing: if students leave school with an enjoyment of physical activity, they are more likely to stay active into middle and later life. Medals apart, this is why the rich diet of sporting opportunities in our independent schools and the quest for excellence in many competitive arenas is such a positive thing. Most students will hang up their rugby boots or hockey stick when they leave school, but a spot of sailing or beach volleyball on holiday and a round of golf or clay pigeon shooting at the weekend is there to be enjoyed for many years to come.

Independent Schools Association – Sport

Further reading: Girls on top – why ‘male’ sports are so cool for girls