School Sport

A tale of two schools


It was the fittest of times, it was the fattest of times, it was the age of the tech,  it was the age of the tradition, it was the epoch of competition, it was the epoch of mass participation, it was the season of spending, it was the season of austerity, it was the spring of activity,  it was the winter of sedentary lifestyles, PE had everything before us, PE had nothing before us, we were all going direct to obesity, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In June last year, Sir Michael Wilshaw, gave an impassioned speech at the Wellington College Festival of Education. He spoke about reclaiming the comprehensive, whilst at the same time releasing the OFSTED survey report about the educational background of those who participate in sports at the elite level. The document was called ‘Going the extra mile: excellence in competitive school sport.‘ The key point was that 42% of medal winners from the Olympic Games came from an independent educational background, although they only make up 7% of the population. He called on state schools to do better and gave us case studies for us to aspire to (although three of the case studies were independent schools). That was 8 months ago and nothing other than that paper has been offered to state schools. Just words and hollow at that. If you want state schools to compete against independent schools in producing elite sportsmen and woman, then words are not enough. Take my school and my partners for example.

My partner and I go to two very similar but different schools. Mine is a state school. Hers an independent school. Similar that both are all boys schools. Similar numbers of pupils. Similar numbers of staff. That is where the similarities end, especially when it comes to sporting provision.

  My School My Partners School
Type of School All boys state All boys Independent
Number on roll 916 962
Number of teaching staff 62 70
Number of staff who run extra-curricular sport 9 63
Are teachers paid for this? No Yes if they are responsible for arranging fixtures and transport. £3000
Outside Coaches 0 17
Curriculum PE Yes Yes
Academic PE Yes No
Extra-curricular Sport Optional Compulsory – it is promoted to be just as important as academic results from the top of the school
Average Sessions a week 2 (if we are lucky)For example 1st XV train for an hour on Wednesday and Thursday after school. 5 For example 1st XV have 3 weights sessions in the morning a week, 3 afternoon sessions for 2 hours at a time and a video session after each competitive fixture focussing on team defence.
Average Squad Size 30 70-80
Facilities 4 rugby/football pitches, 17m by 12m gymnasium, 25 yard swimming pool, 2 cricket pitches. 9 rugby or football pitches. 4 cricket pitches. Indoor and outdoor swimming pool. 8 Badminton court sports hall. Free weights fitness suite. CV machine fitness suit. Gymnasium. Outdoor and indoor cricket nets. Rowing boat house.
How many competitive sports offered 8 17
How many students represent the school in a year? 300 780
How many competitive school fixtures last year? 101 Rugby

112 Football

36 Cricket

5 Badminton

12 Lacrosse

8 Chess

10 Athletics

8 Basketball

Total: 292

234 Rugby

150 Hockey

130 Cricket

112 Football

14 Badminton

20 Fencing

20 Rowing

20 Cross Country

10 Athletics

12 Chess

20 Shooting

12 Basketball

12 Tennis

10 Swimming

12 Orienteering

6 Golf

10 Squash

Total: 784

Budget To run PE and Sport at school £42,000. (of which around £30,000 is donated parents and ex students as ‘voluntary contributions’) To run PE and Sport £490,000

I have written about the divide of opportunity in sport between the state and independent sectors before. However the data above clearly demonstrates the clear gulf in funding, facilities and staffing there is between the two. What it also highlights is the following:

1. Time spent on sport – students at independent schools have more time to play and practice their chosen sports. It is built into their day, it is compulsory and for termly boarding schools it is easy to ensure they have free and curriculum time spent on sports. Lets take the respective 1st XV Rugby teams.  My partners school they would have 3 x 1 hour weights session in the morning at the school gym, run by a outside strength and conditioning coach. They have 3 x 2 hour sessions in the afternoon to work on technical and technical aspects. They also video all their games and then will have a video analysis session run by a local club for them on the next day after the match. This specifically is focused on team defence and individual errors are highlighted in the session. At maximum during the week I would get to spend 2 hours with my team. In that time I would focus on key basic skills and tactical work as well as preparing them for their next game. I give them a fitness training programme (pre-season and during season) which I expect them to follow in their own free time, however it is very clear that only a few do this. The time given to students to develop their physical and technical skills and ability in sports is significantly higher in the independent sector.

2. Range of Sports – there is a growing amount of evidence that early specialisation in a sport for children is detrimental. It is even being suggested that a multi-sports approach might even help in producing more elite sports men and women. At independent schools they tend to play a multitude of sports. A typical boy at my partners schools will play rugby, football or hockey, cricket or athletics. They will also have time to play other sports. Specialisation doesn’t happen until the 6th Form and even then that is mostly confined to those that row. At my school children choose the sport they want to play. Typically if a child wants to play school football, which we offer in the second term, they will play for a club for the first term. They will only want to play football. There are very few students who play all four of our main sports. Playing a variety of sports reduces the chance of risk of injury and burnout, increases the chance of adulthood activity and creates in my mind smarter and more creative players.

3. Mass participation – everyone must participate, including staff. There is very little chance of opt out. The cries of ‘I don’t like this sport’ or ‘I can’t be bothered’ are drowned out by the collective voice of how important sport is. Having all children and staff involved in sport have huge amounts of benefits. Training is always competitive due to the numbers. Progress is easier to achieve and maintain because everyone is alway there. This is an issue in state school sport where numbers are poor. Students don’t turn up for a variety of reasons. It becomes hard to build momentum in their development. Numbers are so low that students know they can miss training sessions and still be picked for the team. This is not as big an issue when you have 4 or 5 teams per year group in each sport. Also having everyone involved in sport ensures that those students who in Year 7 that might not be physically developed or those with an attitude to drop out do not. They also have the chance to train and play at their level. I have seen and heard from colleagues in Independent Schools that many of these types of students, who are on the peripheries in Year 7 develop to being the backbone of teams in Year 13. At state schools these students would just drift away and never participate in the first place.

School sport can, if used correctly, be an educational tool to provide opportunities for students. Opportunities to learn to communicate, to learn to fail in a safe environment, to learn to work as a team, to gain the feeling of belonging, to learn commitment, to learn to place others above self interest, to learn how to socially interact and to do something for the sole purpose of it being fun and enjoyable, along with a myriad of other benefits. It is an extension and enrichment of the PE Curriculum to further allow students to learn in, through and about movement. What school sport isn’t for is to produce world class athletes. No matter how much I love winning or the thought that one day I would unearth and shape a raw talent that would dominate the world in their chosen sport, this isn’t why I go out of my way to provide opportunities for students to participate in school sport. It can’t be the driving force of school sport.

Going the extra mile sounds like a sacrifice and frankly it is. The sacrifice teachers give in the state sector to offer the opportunity of competitive sport to their students is high. Most of us don’t do it for awards or payment, being involved in school sport is our own reward. We do it to develop students, motivate them and hopefully get them being involved for a lifetime. Playing beyond school at university and club. This is what the government should be helping us strive for, mass participation in sport and physical activity beyond school, not the state sector winning more Olympic Medals. This is where we want support, and not just mere words.

I see a beautiful state school and brilliant young people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly active, in their triumphs and defeats on the sports field, through long years to come, I see the inactivity of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out. . . .
I see that child, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. . . .
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.

By @ImSporticus

Lecturer in PE, Sport and Physical Activity. Helping others to flourish through movement.

19 replies on “A tale of two schools”

Good piece. It chimes with my experience. One interesting additional phenomenon is that students and parents in the state sector tend to make greater use, in my experience, of outside sports clubs and facilities. My kids, one who represented his country (not mine – I’m Scottish), got all of his expertise and practice from outside of the school. The school weren’t interested in his success at all. My family back in Scotland have competed at high levels in football, golf and swimming – none of which was encouraged or supplied by the school. Indeed, Scotland has recognised this and encouraged the non-PE ‘agent’ apprcoach for schools, staff who liaise with outside sports clubs. Your fundamental point, however, is that state schools have abandoned extra-curricular activity in sport – this is generally true. As a Governor in a large comprehensive, parents complained about this, the facuilties were there, but teachers (and those in charge of recruitment) showed no interest. To conclude, I came to the conclusion, after trying to change this for some years, that it will now never happen in state schools. The culture has changed irreversibly. The Scottish model seems like the way forward.


Hi Donald. Thanks for your comments. This was a conversation that I had with a fellow teacher a few months ago who I had trained with at University. He seem to suggest that state school sport should be disbanded and refocused on House or Intramural sport with clear links into local clubs. Clubs to come in a prepare students for the competitions and then run the competitions. Parents to be invited in to watch and then have the chance to speak to the coaches of the clubs. I have to say whilst I personally would be against this, the suggested model does seem to potentially have a greater impact on keeping students healthy and active outside of school. If it did go that way, I for one would be very willing to offer my experience, qualifications and time to the youth set up of any club.


Nothing changes.. My school is a Primary School with 3 sports coaches. Two with degrees in sports and physical activity. Our head loves the work we do. We now play more sports than ever. We are very lucky to have a head with a PE background. She’s an England vet hockey player. But still Afpe will not recognise the work we do as we are taking the work from Qualified Teachers, who in my school are happy for this to happen. I think if schools had my heads outlook to PE and sport use the sports premium for long term outcomes and not quick fix PPA cover primary PE might get close to improving long term athlete development.


Hi Garry. Thanks for the comment. It does seem you have a good set-up. Whilst my personal bias means I would want a specialist primary school PE teacher in every primary school in the country, I think it is shortsighted not to see what you are providing as worthwhile and in need of recognition. In the end it is the children that matter, and it sounds like you are providing them with excellent opportunities to engage in physical activity and sport.


From my experience I would imagine most teachers in independent schools don’t get paid any extra for their contribution to extra-curricular and sporting provision. I suppose the key difference is the purpose of education and the values that drives in terms of provision and expectation from the staff.


A Tale of Two Communities?

I think that there is a further aspect to this which you might want to consider, which is the provision of extramural sport within the local community. In the city where I live, for example, there are hundreds of sport clubs and teams providing sporting opportunities for children, from field sports such as rugby, hockey, football and cricket, to indoor games such as badminton, table tennis and chess and everything in between. The opportunities available outside of school far outstrip anything any given school could possibly provide – which is a very good thing indeed, and which you don;t seem to have taken into account.

I’d suggest that commercial schools provide lots of extracurricular activity (including sport, drama and so on) because, for many reasons, those paying for their children’s education want this kind of extracurricular activity to be provided by schools, not the local community. But those attending state schools (and commercial schools to, for that matter) have extensive community sporting facilities at their disposal and so the provision *is* there; it’s just not provided by school.

All this means that you aren’t really comparing like with like. As a primary teacher who has taken responsibility for PE and sports teams, I’ve always taken the view that school sport gives children a chance to experience the positive aspects of engaging in physical activity and competition. Some children love the competitive aspects of sport, and others emphatically don’t, so many children do not want to engage very much with sport.

I argue that, should children take to a particular discipline or show some talent or aptitude for sport, schools should direct them to community teams and facilities, which have the time, expertise and people to develop high quality, competitive and importantly, non-compulsory, sport. And before anyone argues that children don’t have access to sporting facilities, it’s important to remember that around 90% of children live in urban areas, in which sporting opportunities – often low cost or free – far outweigh anything a school could possibly provide, state or otherwise. Seeing state schools – one form of community provision for children – in isolation is to miss the bigger picture of provision in the wider community, isn’t it?


Hi Jack. Thanks for your comment. You make a clear and insightful point and i fully agree with it. Making viable school club sports links is an important area and one that I am trying to develop in my school. However the piece I wrote was in response to Michael Wilshaw’s Reclaiming the Comprehensive Speech and Going the Extra Mile Report for OFSTED. Both of them only make reference to school provision of sport, not the wider community, which is why I did not mention it. The report actually looks at comparing state and independent school sport provision and their impact on producing world class athletes and Olympic medal winners. My post was to ridicule this idea and the constant media questioning about provision from it such as this recent article Also to show possible reasons why independent schools manage to produce more elite athletes (although I didn’t make the point that they may also be better financed by their parents to pursue their dreams of sporting excellence). I also make the point that school sport provision is about ensuring physical activity and participation in sport beyond school. This is what the government needs to make speeches about and act upon, ensuring state schools can provide formative experiences in sport that allow children to continue once they have left. I have asked in a previous post that rather than comparing medals won at the olympics between state and independent schools, perhaps adult levels of activity or sports participation would be more worthwhile data to collect, compare and contrast. It would be interesting to see data on adults who regularly participate in sport or don’t and see whether they came through independent, state or club provision. Although this wouldn’t take in all variables this would at least start a dialogue about provision of sport at schools that is worthwhile having, rather than the hyperbole of medal winners.


Looks like we are largely on the same page, then 😉 A couple of things:

1) Yes, Michael Wilshaw’s comments about school sport are largely irrelevant, since he (deliberately or otherwise) ignores the wider community in which state schools operate, and the reasons why GB wins medals in the sports in which it does, which in turn explain why a large number of medal winners are likely to continue to come from commercial schools. Quite simply, some sports are expensive and Team GB does well at them. If Team GB were winning running races or football tournaments, his arguments might wash. We don’t, and he’s wrong as a result.
2) My goodness, that telegraph article is nonsense, isn’t it? Again, not really worth engaging with such a weak (and badly edited) arguments. But, simply, commercial schools offer longer school days, and the additional time after 3pm is mostly used for extracurricular childcare in the form of sports, drama, debating and so on (see for example). They are very different to community schools as a result.
3) Unless Ofsted Inspectors are tasked to judge state school sports provision in Ofsted reports (and I would argue strongly against them doing so in the current climate), most head teachers and SLT will continue to largely ignore sport and focus on ticking boxes – unless their students are pretty much guaranteed to ‘perform’ to a standard of which Ofsted will approve, which might allow a little leeway. I’ve worked for Head Teachers who have been indifferent to the point of hostility when it has come to promoting intra and inter school sport; if it doesn’t help the ‘bottom line’, far too many school managers are simply uninterested, whatever it is.

So yes, if your argument is that the focus on medal winners and the differences in sport provision in state v private is Not Even Wrong, I’m with you there. It all smacks of holding state schools responsible for issues outside their control, as is wearily familiar to all who work in education.

Keep up the good work,


From my view as a teacher in an infant school and nursery with children aged 4-7, PE for us is about physical development and movement based skills not yet sport. We send those who seem interested in sport through our after school clubs to local clubs.

However it is crucial that our chn receive quality instruction and passion on how to enjoy moving and these are prerequisite to skills needed for sport. This can only happen from passionate, well-trained individuals with excellent subject knowledge on how chn grow and develop at these ages.


This really riles me. Independent schools can achieve the “rounded education” we crave as educators, as these children receive first quality teaching, can use quality facilities, gain quality instruction and inspiration from outside experts in sport, PE and the creative arts.

I actually think this begins in Primary school level though. Chn receive poor, narrow provision across PE and the arts, often from professionals who have poor subject knowledge and no passion for teaching it. Many chn are removed at young ages from these important subjects to do maths and English intervention, and they drastically switch off from education all together.

I think, from as young as 4, children need a better experience of PE and the arts. In our local private school, 4 year olds spend an hour a week with a trainee from the royal ballet school. In my school, so many chn would engage with this. I have met 2 chn in my time as a teacher who had completely disengaged with school, one aged 8 the other 10. The youngest said, “well I never get to do PE and when I do, it’s s*it.” The other said “we never get to be crentire, it’s only English, maths and science ’til the SATs, how boring!”

Quite right too. Possibly the only things they might be good at or have talent for, we need to use these subjects to help motivate with school in general.

To sum up, too many chn from an early age get this poor experience which seems to carry on with sport provision in secondary. Until we as educators understand that chn have different skills, motivators and passions and then deliver first quality teaching across them, many chn will disengage.

Interestingly, some of the gold medal winners, who were listed as private school chn, had originally been in state schools but transferred through scholarships to private.

Poaching of gifted sportspeople another issue here perhaps?


Thank for your comments Conor. I think you raise some interesting points here, of which I don’t have any of the answer. Firstly my primary school colleagues have one of the hardest jobs in the world. To also ask them to take full responsibility of the physical development of a child as well as what they are already responsible for is too much for anyone. A specialist primary PE teacher in every primary school in the country would be a start to help support them. Secondly I believe, like you, in a well rounded and holistic education, but this seems to be narrowing in favour of intervention to ensure top grades. With regards to gifted sport people moving to independent schools, I sit on the fence here. We have just lost a rugby and a cricket school boy international to independent schools for 6th Form. Both want to make careers out of their chosen sports. Whilst I feel that as a school we have invested heavily in their development to get them where they are today, they are probably going to be better supported in a schools whose facilities and environment is set up for this. The decision in the end has to be down to what is in the best interests for the child. In both these cases its probably not staying with us. What upsets me is the constant comparison between state and independent school provision. If its going to be brought up, lets first discuss why sport is provided in schools and secondly WHY independents are able to provide so much more, not that they do.


I think that all primary teachers need to get over their fear of weaker subjects, search out for better subject knowledge, make themselves more passionate and deliver better lessons.

I have had to do this in art and literacy. These are my weaknesses, I have sought out better subject knowledge and try my best to deliver passionate teaching. Not fair that chn receive weaker and unimpassioned teaching in certain subjects. My points go across subjects rather than the issue of sport…so apologies for that!


Interesting to read the post, comments and responses – thank you.

I taught in four state schools and two independents, and it was in the independent sector that I was a deputy and then a head – deputy in a 4-18 school and head of a 7-18 school. These schools were day schools, and girls’ schools. Sport was important, but so were music, drama, debating and a whole range of other extra-curricular activities. The schools were committed to offering the greatest breadth of education they could, and to developing the students’ teamwork and leadership capacity. The dedication to the life of the school beyond the classroom, including in sport, was a crucial part of this. Generally all staff were expected to contribute in some way to the extra-curricular life of the school, though not necessarily in sport.

The school where I was a head was in a group of five schools – one was a boys’ day and boarding school, perhaps not unlike your partner’s school. The attitude to sport there was, interestingly, different from these girls’ day schools. It was definitely on a separate level from music, drama and so on, and I sometimes used to think the focus on the importance of sport was more akin to a religion. Pretty much every teacher they engaged was expected to contribute to school sport. Most of these teachers were men, and there’s research to show that men are far more likely to continue playing sport into their adult lives than women are – and I know there are all sorts of reasons for this – so making a contribution to running a team was far more likely than was the case in the staff appointments I was making down the road. This boys’ day and boarding school had been around since the 1500s and traditions were very strong! I sometimes thought that the attitude towards sport probably dated from the days of the empire and the idea of the future generals and leaders being trained on the playing fields.

I just wanted to point out that not all independent schools are the same – it’s a very broad church – and boys’ boarding schools, or day and boarding schools, are probably at one end of the spectrum in terms of the time and the money they invest in sport. But you are absolutely right to explore the differences in funding/approach and to relate this to the criticisms we sometimes of state sport we sometimes hear.

Thanks again for the post.


Thanks for your comments Jill. I think my partner would agree with you that sport can be on another level in all boys independents, and in some cases take priority over academic work. Whilst I love sport, I think in a school setting this is too much. Arnold’s introduction of competitive sport into public boarding schools in the 1800’s was in an attempt to civilise the wildness and uncouthness of the youth, and promote the ideals of ‘muscular christianity’. It is a key driving force in many public schools I visit. The issue with it’s dominance is that it blurs what PE is about in education. It also blurs what policy makers think good PE should be and what good provision of physical activity is at school should. It is because of this dominance we get misconceptions and comparisons of sport provision between state and independent schools. None of which helps send out a clear message to students and parents of the importance of PE and physical activity.


Thanks – and you’ve made me think, which is always good!

Enjoy the rest of your Easter break.


[…] 42% of the 2012 Olympic medals won by Team GB came from those of a private education background. It isn’t really that startling when you look at the comparison of sporting provision between t…. It seems from Sir Michael’s perspective state schools had either forgotten the educational […]


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