Sports Academies

Specialised Sports Programs in schools

As school leaders review their strategic plan coming out of Covid, Nick Mooney looks at the potential benefits that Specialised Sports Programmes bring to international schools.

The rise of the sports academy

Sport has never been more important to the world. Tokyo 2020 inspired us in a truly difficult period, and there is little doubt about the positive connection between participation in sport, well-being and personal growth. At a time when schools are developing their post-Covid development plans, the rise and impact of school embedded Sports Academies is an increasingly important phenomenon that deserves the attention of all educational planners.

Why do they exist and what are the key drivers? Are they a reflection of a desire for increased enrolment, a lever for increased pride and connection to school (including among alumni), a basis for improved academic performance or a combination of all of the above? The answer seems to be overwhelmingly to increase enrolments.

And as the evidence of an increasing number of case studies shows, they work.

What is a school sports academy?

Typically, a specialist sports academy attached to a school involves an offering of one or more sports, catering for local needs and interests or as part of an international outreach strategy. In Edinburgh or Thailand, it may be about Golf, in Singapore, Muay Thai. Other schools may establish a broad “Athlete Excellence Program” or similar. In Switzerland it could be about Skiing, Snowboarding and Biathlon. Students in an academy’s Specialist Sports Program or ‘SSP’ are generally given a number of periods per week curriculum time in addition to specialist after-school training and ancillary sessions to develop an identified potential to become an elite athlete. Programmes are often associated with access to international class facilities on campus and nearby. Generally, families will pay an additional annual fee to help support the additional running costs of an SSP to cover the cost of coaches, facility hire, transport etc.

Potential impact on the parent school

As the following case studies show, the impact of an SSP on a school’s development and growth can be profound.

HIF Swiss International School: Sports Academy

HIF is an international boarding school in south-eastern Switzerland, with an SSP that focuses, not surprisingly, on cross-country skiing, biathlon, alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, freestyle snowboarding and ice hockey.

Having started the academy in 1994, HIF considers sport as an essential element in the school’s overall educational programme. promoting health, well-being, resilience, self-discipline and team spirit. Sport is seen as source of joy, excitement and inspiration. As with other schools that have established an SSP, HIF enables young talents and students interested in sports to combine competitive or leisure sports with a strong academic programme. Sports academy enrolment numbers are comparatively small, rising from 19 in 1994 to 40 in 2021, but its ethos has affected the whole school, and sporting outcomes have been really impressive. Alumni include numerous Winter Olympians, including 3 Olympic gold medallists.

American School of Bangkok (Green Valley Campus), Bangkok, Thailand: golf

ASB is an International Boarding School, which established an international preparatory Golf Academy in 2015, and currently attracts international students from Cambodia, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Starting small with only 5 students in 2015, the ASB Golf Academy has risen in numbers to a current cohort of 49.

At a time when Golf is very much on the rise in Asia, ASB has become the Number 1 Junior Golf Academy in Thailand and the school prides itself on helping students achieve their dream of playing college golf in USA with an acceptance rate of over 95%, many of whom gain scholarships to the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association).

Western Heights College, Geelong, Victoria, Australia: Basketball, AFL and Netball

Western Heights College is a co-educational Year 7-12, government secondary college located in Geelong, Victoria. In their almost 2-year journey offering a Specialist Sports Program, the school has established Basketball as its foundation sport, introducing Australian Rules Football in 2021 and is about to add Netball in 2022. There are currently 150 students within the sports academy in a school enrolment of 510. 2022 enrolment is predicted to be 200.

In July 2017, with a new Principal, the school was facing some immediate challenges with declining enrolment and poor community perception of the college. The SSP is just one aspect of a radical new strategy: over the past 4 years the college has focused on developing new values and ethos, while introducing a new uniform that the students feel proud to wear and comfortable in. There can be no doubt that the SSP has been a key part of the change and played a central role in changing community perceptions of the school as students learn to be great people first and athletes second. According to Principal, Fiona Taylor,

“The introduction of the SSP program to our college has supported the development not only of improved outcomes for our students within the program but also, and more importantly provided a significant boost to the development of whole school pride, student numbers and positive connection with our community.”

Loretto School, Musselburgh, Scotland:  Golf

Loretto is a co-educational independent boarding and day school, just outside of Edinburgh, and adjacent to the historic Musselburgh Golf Course. The school established its golf academy in 2002, with enrolment now capped at 75.

As with Western Heights, the establishment of the Golf Academy at Loretto has had a real impact on the school community as a whole. According to Ian McLean, former Director of Development

Alumni responded positively including generous financial support to begin a programme of developing on-site short-game facilities. Marketing the school was helped enormously by having a unique focus.

“Recruitment of pupils was enhanced and within one year 10% of new enrolments were golf related. This included young golfers from across the UK and internationally.”

The initiative strongly supported the school’s boarding program, given that many of the golfing students are international. The Academy also became a vehicle for philanthropic support from Loretto alumni who were keen to contribute to golfing scholarships. The school now delivers a golf programme to more than 200 pupils per week and runs regular golf camps.

Maribyrnong Sports Academy, Melbourne, Australia

Maribyrnong College is a Public co-educational day school, in the Inner West of Melbourne. Close to being closed as a school in the late 90s, the idea of a sports academy to revive the school was given Victorian state and Australian federal government support and subsequent funding and opened in 2006. The sports programme is broad-based, offering Australian Rules Football, Athletics, Badminton, Baseball, Basketball Cricket, Football, Golf, Hockey, Judo, Netball, Taekwondo, Tennis and Volleyball.

The academy has been a major factor in the changing fortunes of the school. In 2005 there with only 250 students at the school before the academy was opened. Sixteen years later there are 575 students in the sports academy alone, with 1,300 students on roll. Academic achievement is above the Victorian state average and five alumni represented Australia at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

International school boarding capacity and the potential for new SSPs

The thirst for specialist sports academies will only grow internationally. Particularly strong growth is seen in Australia: within Melbourne, there are now over thirty secondary schools with specialist sport academies, the overwhelming majority of which see strong growth in overall numbers.

Outside Australia, however, the potential released by Specialist Sports Programmes remains largely untapped. This could be about to change. The growth of boarding is an important trend in international education and sports academies sit well alongside good boarding facilities.  The SSP is almost certainly a concept in international education whose time has come.

One thing for sure, individual schools with SSPs can already point to enhanced academic performance, increased enrolment and significantly developed alumni engagement.

Sports academies are here to stay.

Play on!

Nick Mooney is a Melbourne based specialist school sport consultant with significant Australian and international experience in schools, including at Gordonstoun in Scotland. Having spent 11 years as strategic manager for School Sport Victoria, he now specialises in setting up and reviewing school sport programs.

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This article first appeared in the September 2021 edition of Washington News published by Washington Services, Melbourne.


Click on the image opposite to watch Nick Mooney (SSV Strategic Manager) pre match interview with Payton Ozols Victoria Uni Secondary.


FEATURE IMAGE and support images kindly provided by Nick

Tokyo 2020 – by Please Don’t sell My Artwork AS IS from Pixabay