Extra-curricular activities in UK schools
Aside from academic performance, one of the things UK schools are known for is their extra-curricular opportunities. Nick Morrison, freelance journalist specialising in education, investigates for Winter's.
The range of sporting, artistic and other pursuits available in the UK is unrivalled in its depth and breadth, with students having the chance to take part in a myriad of activities, often to a very high standard.
The quality of coaching available in sport alone leads to world class performances. Around a third of Britain’s medallists in the London Olympics were educated at independent schools, even though they account for just one in 14 pupils.
This level of success is replicated in other fields, from Oscar-winning actors to globally recognised musicians.
Excellent sporting facilities are pretty much standard at independent schools. As well as indoor and outdoor sports pitches, this means a swimming pool, squash courts, tennis courts and a gym. Many schools will also offer more specialist sports, such as fencing, archery and horse-riding, while some have rowing and sailing on the timetable.
Pretty much all schools are equipped with music studios and rehearsal rooms, as well as a drama studio, with students having plenty of opportunities to perform. Most schools will also have a wide range of clubs, from robotics to photography.
Participation in extra-curricular activities is rarely compulsory - although all pupils will do sport of some kind - but it is strongly encouraged, as a way of developing interests outside the purely academic and providing a meaningful leisure pursuit.
At many schools, these activities will also give students the opportunity to compete against other schools, and sometimes internationally, in the case of clubs such as debating societies.
While these activities are offered as standard, the quality of both facilities and coaching will vary, giving parents the opportunity to match a school’s particular strengths to their own child’s interests and abilities.
And if a child is particular talented in a specific area, it is worth asking to what level the school will be able to support them. Some schools have the ability to develop a student’s talent up to not far short of international level in sport, for example.
Almost all independent secondary schools will also give pupils the chance to take part in the Duke of Edinburgh Awards. The scheme has been running for 60 years and aims to promote skills including self-reliance, responsibility and resilience through a series of challenges, as participants make their way through the bronze, silver and gold awards.
In addition, many schools run a Combined Cadet Force (CCF). These military-style organisations, sponsored by the Ministry of Defence, provide a disciplined environment and aim to develop leadership skills.
These activities serve an obvious purpose in providing a more rounded education, as well as an outlet from what can often be fairly intense periods of study, but that is not their only value.
University admissions tutors frequently look to a student’s extra-curricular activities to see if they may have something to contribute aside from their academic abilities, and for evidence of some of the skills that will serve them well in higher education, such as self-reliance.
A crucial factor in choosing a school for many parents is what happens at weekends. Even among schools where the majority of pupils are boarders, a large number of pupils may go home for the weekend, an option rarely available for those whose parents live overseas.
The differences are such that at some schools there will be only a handful of pupils there at weekends, while at others virtually the entire school remains.
"University admissions tutors frequently look to a student’s extra-curricular activities..."
A school’s policy can be a good guide to whether it will be deserted or buzzing on Saturdays and Sundays. Some schools may have just two or three exeat weekends a year, where pupils are allowed home, while at others students can apply to go home several times a term.
Even when many pupils have gone home, most schools will organise activities at the weekends, whether it is trips to the nearest town or an orienteering expedition, for example. Often, these will have an educational element, although some will be purely for fun, such as trips to a water park or a shopping expedition.
A school’s location is also important. Schools within easy distance of London provide many more opportunities for cultural visits, such as to museums, art galleries or concerts. On the other hand, schools in a more rural setting are more readily able to offer outdoor pursuits.
Rural schools are also likely to have more extensive grounds than those in London, where pressure on land means undeveloped space is at a premium.
And there is another reason why location matters, particularly to parents who live overseas. Regardless of a school’s academic performance or extra-curricular opportunities, its proximity to an airport is sometimes a deciding factor.
See also How to choose the right UK school