Top of their game
Steve Wright tracks down some eye-catching sporting facilities at UK independent schools
Posted by Julian Owen | November 09, 2018 | Sports & Leisure
top-of-their-game, independent-schools, sporting-facilities, kilgraston-school, rydal-penrhos, loretto-school, loughborough-endowed-schools

Take a head count of the residents of Kilgraston School near Perth, and you will find some 275 pupils, several dozen staff… and 22 horses. 

That’s because equestrianism is a substantial element of the sporting offer at the all-girls school, whose dedicated Equestrian Centre is set in 20 acres of beautiful grounds among the Perthshire countryside. The centre features a 40m x 60m, all-weather floodlit arena with a full set of show jumps, plus a jumping paddock and hacking track, alongside 10 newly renovated stables. 

Pupils at Kilgraston can begin riding lessons from the age of five – and pony rides a year before that. Lessons take place all year round; riding is all extra-curricular and optional, with a third of the school’s pupils riding through the week, in school teams on their own ponies, or assisting with the twice-weekly Riding for the Disabled sessions.

Equestrianism is central to the school’s sporting ethos and success, as Rachael MacLean, Kilgraston’s Equestrian Manager, explains. “We run two equestrian events per year – the Scottish Schools Equestrian Championships in March and an inter-schools Hunter Trials in September, and normally have at least 25 Kilgraston girls competing at each event, alongside other local team riding events. 

“Kilgraston has produced some exceptional professional riders over the years. Louisa Milne Holme is a four-star international event rider, Lucy Alexander is Scotland’s first female professional jockey and current pupil Daisy Cross is in the Scottish Under 18s eventing squad, competing in the international one-star event at this summer’s Blair Horse Trials.” 

Pauline Stott MBE is the school’s Director of Sport: “Not a day goes by that the horses at Kilgraston don’t bring a smile to my face. Whether they are running around their fields or rolling on the ground, they are such a wonderful addition to the school on so many levels. It is a complete pleasure to drive through the campus’s front arch every day and see such a variety of horses and ponies. 

“The take-up of lessons for the Equestrian Centre is very high. Staff love the positive impact our facilities have, both in school and in the wider community. Girls really bond with the horses here. Of course, those who wish to take the sport to a higher level can join the school’s Equestrian Team and participate in competitions around the country. A relationship with an animal is so very important for children and this is demonstrated again and again – no more so than during our weekly Riding for the Disabled sessions.”

Set sail

From land to water, sailing is big business at Rydal Penrhos School in north Wales, which celebrated the 60th anniversary of its sailing programme this year. Situated just a three-minute walk from the picturesque Colwyn Bay coastline, the school is fortunate to have fantastic natural resources for sailing. No surprise, then, that Rydal Penrhos has become one of the UK’s very few schools teaching sailing as part of its curriculum.

The school recently received a prestigious accreditation from the Royal Yachting Association (RYA), enabling it to run courses and hold regional and national training programmes from its base, which is fully equipped with a fleet of dinghies appropriate for all abilities. 

Rydal Penrhos’ sailing programme is led by Max Todd, a Level 3 coach, advanced senior instructor and coastal skipper who also trains the Welsh National Sailing squads. 

“Sailing features as part of the curriculum for pupils from Year 3 to Year 8, where they are taught basic skills at their clubhouse or on the water,” Max explains. “Pupils can complete a wide range of RYA certificates including Stages 1–4, Sailing with Spinnakers, Performance Sailing, Seamanship Skills and Powerboat courses up to Level 2 as part of our new accreditation.

“We are also able to give aspiring sailors the chance to take part in further sessions after school hours, and they are also challenged significantly in a competitive environment at a wide variety of regional, national and international competitions throughout the year.”

The school also hosts its own regatta, which is well attended by schools and clubs from across the North West. Rydal Penrhos can also boast various members of national sailing squads.

“Our sailing programme is something we are really proud of here at Rydal Penrhos, and it has been a huge hit with our hard-working pupils for 60 years now,” says Director of Sport Allen Boyd. “The commitment shown by our dedicated coaching staff is nothing short of extraordinary – and this is reflected in the amount of national and international success we have achieved at the school, as well as our recent RYA accreditation.”

Hole in one

Back in Scotland, around an hour’s drive from Kilgraston School, Edinburgh’s Loretto School has chosen to specialise in another relatively unusual school sport: the historic game of golf.

The Loretto Golf Academy, established in 2002 on the school campus, boasts innovative practice facilities and programmes for both beginners and advanced golfers. The school has its own nine-hole artificial putting green, driving bays, bunker and chipping areas, which complement the excellent opportunities provided by partner clubs Craigielaw Golf Club, Archerfield Links, Musselburgh Old Links and Royal Musselburgh Golf Club.

The Golf Academy delivers golf to more than 260 pupils a week, between the ages of five and 18, as well as running a number of residential and non-residential golf camps throughout the year. It is widely recognised as the top independent golf school in Europe, attracting young golfers from around the world. More recently, the Academy launched its state-of-the-art Indoor Centre in 2015. It comprises an indoor driving range, short game facility to include chipping, pitching and putting, putting analysis and an indoor teaching studio with video analysis and Trackman.

Over the years, former pupils of Loretto have captained many of the best-known clubs throughout Scotland and the UK. No fewer than seven Lorettonians have captained The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, St Andrews, whilst 11 have captained the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield.

“Loretto encouraged me to make the most of myself in every aspect of my life, uncovering not only a competitive edge, but a love of sportsmanship that has been a guiding influence in my life ever since,” says former Lorettonian Graeme Simmers, 2001/2002 Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, St Andrews.

“The Loretto Golf Academy ensures that I receive support from professional coaches in all golf disciplines – swing techniques and strategy, fitness and mental strength,” adds current pupil Maximilian Walz. 

“The Academy ethos can be described with four words: practise like a champion!” 

Stand out

So far we have looked at schools which have found something unusual to add to their sporting repertoire. Other schools, meanwhile, concentrate on the more mainstream school sports – and ensure that they stand out by the quality of their facilities.

For example, work has recently begun on a state-of-the-art sports centre at Loughborough Endowed Schools, paving the way for pupils to discover the physical and mental benefits of staying active.

The construction team broke ground back in June and the facility, which will be used by pupils from across the Foundation of Schools, is due for completion by spring 2019. When open, it will include a multi-use sports hall, fitness suite with strength and cardio equipment, a dance studio and brand-new changing rooms.

Jim Doherty, Loughborough’s Chief Operating Officer, believes that the facility will play an important role in promoting sports participation among pupils, no matter what their age or ability – and sow the seeds for a lifelong love of sport. “This is an ambitious project and one that we believe will bring immense benefits to the Foundation. It will offer something for everyone, whether they want to compete to the highest level, feel strong and capable, or simply try something for the first time.

“We know that sporting excellence and improved fitness are commendable goals in their own right, but we should also recognise the part exercise plays in developing valuable life skills such as resilience, determination and teamwork. Those who exercise regularly often say that it helps to alleviate stress and focus the mind, which is essential during busy exam periods and later on in their working lives.”

As well as providing practice and fitness facilities for Loughborough pupils, the new sports centre will also host external matches and tournaments. “We are creating a place that we can all be proud of when visiting teams come to play here,” Jim explains. “Some of them will have travelled from across the county, or further, so it’s important that they – and their parents and teachers – enjoy their time with us.”

Whether it’s horse-riding on the open moors of central Scotland or sailing the shores of North Wales, it’s that enjoyment – and participation at all levels – that is the crucial driver behind UK independent schools offering some of the best and most distinctive sporting facilities available anywhere in the country.