A look into the leading independent schools in the UK that excel in sports
It comes as no surprise that a significant number of Britain’s Olympic medalists in recent years were educated in independent schools. Renowned TV sports presenter and sportswoman Sally Jones asserts that this is no coincidence.
As a fervent tennis enthusiast at the age of 13, I ventured to Street in Somerset with the Warwickshire junior county team to face the formidable Millfield School. With some of the country’s top junior players in their squad, they posed quite a challenge. Although my team suffered a narrow defeat, I was instantly captivated. The school’s jaw-dropping facilities and exceptional coaching left me astounded.
Millfield School, with its breathtaking grounds, expansive swimming pool, polo fields, indoor tennis courts, and acres of pitches, seemed like a slice of heaven to me. They even had the option to bring a pony! I was so enamored that upon returning home, I wrote a letter to the headmaster, pleading to be granted a sports scholarship. While he was encouraging, he did suggest that I inform my parents first, which unfortunately dampened my plans.
Decades later, Millfield School remains a powerhouse in the world of sports. Although top tennis talent now tends to forgo formal education to train at specialized camps overseas, the school continues to produce an impressive array of sporting greats. This includes England rugby captain Chris Robshaw and several of his teammates, as well as former England netball captain Pamela Cookey.
Every year, around 50 alumni from Millfield achieve international selection in various sports such as cricket, swimming, athletics, polo, and modern pentathlon. The school had nine competitors at the London Olympics, two of whom won gold medals: rower Helen Glover in the women’s pair and Peter Wilson in double trap shooting.
This season has been particularly successful for Millfield, with victories in the European Schools Golf Championships, national titles in Twenty20 cricket, girls’ tennis, and cross country. They have also advanced to the national finals in football, rugby, girls’ hockey, and all three age groups of the national schools netball championships. Additionally, 19 swimmers have qualified for the Olympic trials.
The Best Sports Schools in the World
While Millfield School is Britain’s most renowned specialized sports school, there are several other independent schools in the country that produce exceptional sporting talent. It is worth noting that over a third of Britain’s medal winners in the last two Olympic Games hailed from fee-paying schools, which educate only a small percentage of all students.
Many independent schools, including Brighton College, have made significant contributions to women’s cricket. Record-breaking England wicket-keeper Sarah Taylor, along with fellow alumnae Holly Colvin and current ECB women’s supremo Clare Connor, played crucial roles in England’s World Cup victory in 2009. Sarah Taylor recently achieved her 100th One-Day cap and became the first woman to play men’s grade cricket in Australia.
Rowing has traditionally been dominated by a select number of schools, such as Hampton, Eton, Shrewsbury, Lady Eleanor Holles, Loretto, and Wellington. These schools also contend with Millfield for top honors in golf, producing numerous outstanding amateur and professional players.
The Finest Rugby Schools in England
Wellington, along with Harrow, Warwick School, Whitgift, Tonbridge, Brighton, Bromsgrove, and Sedbergh, excels in rugby. Despite its relatively small size, with just 320 boys in its co-ed senior school, Sedbergh fields an impressive 15 rugby teams during the season and has produced numerous rugby legends, including England captains Wavell Wakefield, John Spencer, and Will Carling, as well as World Cup winner Will Greenwood. Sedbergh also excels in disciplines such as rifle shooting, cross country, fell running, and netball, with former England netball star Lucia Sdao serving as the director of girls’ sport.
Shrewsbury School, alma mater of England batsman James Taylor, has an outstanding tradition in athletics and football. Two of its alumni helped establish the rules of association football in 1856. The school’s cross-country team, The Hunt, is the oldest running club in the world and consistently wins numerous national titles. The team even trains at altitude in Ethiopia and Kenya during the winter, under the guidance of Kenyan great John Ngugi.
The Finest Independent Schools for Tennis
Reed’s School in Cobham, St George’s College in Weybridge, and Queenswood School in Hertfordshire boast exceptional tennis facilities and scholarships that attract some of Europe’s most talented young players.
For schools vying to attract top talent, both in sports and academics, success on the field serves as a powerful showcase. It often entices clusters of gifted individuals to join, many of whom are offered generous scholarships. For those who achieve success in football, cricket, athletics, and rugby, the financial rewards can be substantial. The field of sports management, media, and marketing is also a lucrative and rapidly growing industry, further incentivizing success as a competitor, promoter, pundit, or media executive.
Sports Boarding Schools in the UK
Prominent boarding schools like Millfield, Tonbridge, and Wellington dominate the production line of sporting talent. Thanks to extensive training, high-quality coaching, state-of-the-art facilities, and a large number of ambitious students fueling friendly competition and professionalism, these schools consistently produce exceptional athletes.
David Faulkner, Millfield’s director of sport, highlights the key role played by the school’s investment in coaching and development. He emphasizes the comprehensive support provided to individuals, including technical, tactical, physical, and mental provisions such as sports psychology, nutrition, video feedback, and fitness.
Whitgift’s director of sport, Alistair Osborne, also recognizes that the school’s role extends beyond merely producing successful teams and individuals. Whitgift offers a wide range of sports at a high level, engaging over 90% of their Year 7 students in various sporting activities. While specializing in rugby, hockey, cricket, and football, Whitgift stands out as an independent school with several boys joining the Chelsea and Crystal Palace academies each year with hopes of becoming professional footballers.
John Claughton, chief master of King Edward’s School Birmingham, personally understands the benefits of sports firsthand. As a former Warwickshire cricketer, he achieved four cricket Blues and a double first in Classics at Oxford. Both of his sons are following in his footsteps, with one playing hockey for Exeter University in the prestigious National League, and the other earning Oxford Blues in both cricket and hockey. Beyond titles and trophies, King Edward’s School focuses on the holistic development of its students and the invaluable life skills gained through sports participation.
Dan Clark, director of sport at picturesque Bradfield College, emphasizes that learning to handle setbacks is an integral part of the school’s success. While boasting outstanding facilities, including remarkable grounds, excellent pitches, and a nine-hole golf course, Clark believes that the most important takeaway from high-level sports participation lies in the transferable skills acquired. These skills include resilience developed through overcoming failures, discipline cultivated through regular training, and respect for others. These qualities are applicable not just in sports but also in business and the professional world, contributing to the well-rounded growth of individuals.
Unique Sports and Traditions
British public schools have a distinct ethos and offer unique sporting opportunities. For instance, Shrewsbury School participates in the ancient game of Eton Fives, which is also referred to as Rugby or Winchester Fives depending on the specific school. Additionally, there are several one-of-a-kind sports exclusive to certain schools. These sports, often played in challenging conditions, foster close-knit communities and lifelong friendships. Examples include Prince Harry’s favored Wall Game and Harrow football, which was beloved by prominent figures like Churchill and King Hussein of Jordan. These distinctive traditions serve as fond memories for those who have experienced them firsthand.
Finding the Best Independent Schools for Sports
Whether a young individual aspires to pursue a career in professional cricket or football, aims to represent their county in netball, or simply finds joy in participating in their school’s rowing or aerobics sessions, independent schools in the UK offer a wide range of opportunities. Leading schools provide generous scholarships, international-standard training facilities, and elite performance pathways, empowering their athletes to excel on the global stage.
Even for those less inclined towards sports, these schools provide invaluable benefits. Students have the opportunity to try various sports, potentially discovering a lifelong passion. One such example is a friend’s daughter, who despite her academic prowess and lack of coordination, found her place at Millfield School’s netball squad. Through dedicated training, her team won the national schools championship, boosting her confidence and opening doors for her future. As the Latin saying goes, “Mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body.