Only 2% of schools can truly claim sporting excellence. And 78% of them are independent.
At some point on a school visit you’ll pass a sports trophy cabinet, or something similar. Most likely you won’t miss it because it’s in the main entrance. It will be celebrating pupils’ achievements, which is to be commended. But so strategically positioned, boasting gleaming shields, cups and trophies for sporting excellence, it’s there to attract your attention. It’s saying “this school is good at sport”.
Being a good school at sport isn’t the same as being a good school for sport. A good school for sport will have good sports teachers, a broad sports curriculum, good sports facilities, high levels of sports participation as well as being good at sport. Being good at sport is about demonstrating sporting excellence. It’s about winning competitions and filling the trophy cabinet.
The distinction is important because it’s a source of disquiet among parents in many schools. Sure, the school wins trophies, but pupils below squad standard might not get to play.
If you’re looking at that trophy cabinet, it’s because you think your child might benefit from playing sport at the highest level. You think that there’s a chance that your child may represent a club, county or country one day. So, let’s have a closer look it.
How do you know when a school is good at sport?
I suggest that there are five criteria for sporting excellence.
- The number of sports speaks for itself. But very few schools excel (by my definition) in more than five sports. They tend to focus on one or two for sporting excellence.
- If you want to see how a school’s intervention affects sporting success you have to consider team sports not individual sports. Every school will have a talented individual occasionally who wins all before them. But they aren’t a reflection of the school’s sporting excellence. They just happen to go to that school. But individual sports do have team competitions. And they count. For example, tennis is an individual sport but there are tennis team competitions where the collective result wins the competition.
- The performance of the senior team is more important than the other age groups. This means the Year 6 team in a junior school or the Year 11 or 13 team in a senior school. Why? Two reasons. Firstly, this team represents the culmination of all the school’s training and intervention. And secondly to avoid double counting. One strong year group winning every year could mask the absence of sporting excellence throughout the school.
- The awards should be for a national competition, not local or regional. If a school prides itself on developing sporting talent then it must have a track record of competing at the highest level. Beating the school down the road may grant local bragging rights, but it isn’t sporting excellence. There are many national sports competitions that have regional qualifiers preceding national finals.
- The school should be able to demonstrate sustained sporting excellence over a number of years. Winning a competition in one year may be glorious, but it isn’t as reassuring as competing in the national finals for three years.
How many schools demonstrate sporting excellence?
Now that you’ve rifled through the trophy cabinet you’ve got a better idea of whether the school is good at sport. Or good at the sport you’re most interested in.
I’ve rifled through quite a few trophy cabinets. I’ve found 94 qualifying national competitions across 29 sports. And each one of those 94 will have a separate tournament for boys, girls, maybe mixed and different age groups. Over the last seven years just over 1,100 schools have reached the knock out phases of a national finals. And of that number 428 schools have demonstrated sustained sporting excellence in one or more sports. That’s just under 2% of all schools.
And of those 428, 180 (42%) are independent senior, 153 (36%) are independent junior, 80 (19%) are state senior and 14 (3%) are state junior.
There are many reasons for this discrepancy and the starting point is the reasons a school might be good for sport, above. Namely; good sports teachers, a broad sports curriculum, good sports facilities, high levels of sports participation as well as being good at sport. Another avenue is the national competition qualification; state schools do not enter national competitions as routinely as independents. The sustained excellence filter shows a big difference too. 80% of state schools who make a national final do not repeat the feat. The ratio is 45% for independents.
As of November 2017, the Government is addressing participation in state school sport through a doubling of the Sport Premium funding. Sporting excellence remains an independent school strength.