Talent factory: How Millfield produces more Olympians than any other school

The Telegraph, 04.08.16, six of the 366 athlete comprising Team GB at Rio 2016 studied at HMC leading independent Millfield School.

The 366 athletes comprising Team GB, settling in to Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Village this week, represent all corners of the United Kingdom and have trodden many different paths to the pinnacle of their chosen sport. For all the Games’ diversity, however, six of the class of 2016 began their Olympic journeys in precisely the same place.

Millfield, the co-educational independent boarding school in Somerset, has famously provided multiple Olympians for every Games since 1956, making it the most prolific sporting talent factory on the schools circuit.

This year’s total, three short of the nine sent to London in 2012 (when there was a bigger squad), is larger than Pakistan’s entire delegation, making Millfield once again the most-represented British school. It includes representatives in athletics, rugby sevens, rowing and hockey. There’s even one current pupil among the bunch: 18 year-old swimmer, Cameron Kurle will compete in Rio before returning to Millfield to open his A-Level results later this month.

Coaches often have the best insight into these kids, since they see them at their most vulnerable [...] It’s one of the things that even state-funded schools could learn fromCraig Considine, Millfield Headmaster

“Having such a big group again is wonderful, but we never set specific targets,” says Craig Considine, Millfield’s headmaster since 2008. “For us it isn’t about statistics or winning trophies – we look at each child as an individual, aiming to hit goals we’ve worked with them to achieve and prepare them for professional life. That could be anything, from a place at a university to a professional contract or the Great Britain squad.”

At its 240-acre campus two miles from Glastonbury, however, the £33,000-a-year Millfield boasts just about all a young athlete could need to reach their potential. As well as swathes of playing fields and green space, there are state-of-the-art indoor facilities, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, 25 full-time coaches (two of whom will also head to Rio with Team GB) and a bevy of support staff most professional sports establishments would be proud of – including a psychologist, a video performance analyst and numerous physiotherapists.

It is this litany of near-professional resources that many point to as the root of a growing problem with Team GB: the number of privately-educated athletes has risen from 20 per cent in 2012 to 28 per cent this year. After the squad was announced last week, five-time Olympic medal-winner, Sir Steve Redgrave (state-educated at Great Marlow School in Buckinghamshire) bemoaned, “the opportunity of playing different sports and the coaching abilities at private schools are, unfortunately, much greater than at the state schools.”

There is no doubt that the support Millfield provides gives pupils a huge head-start over less well-endowed schools, but Considine – himself a former Commonwealth Games decathlete and professional Australian Rules footballer in his native Melbourne – is keen to point out that it isn’t alone in possessing multi-million pound training venues.

Many of Millfield’s competitors in the upper fee bracket are just as well equipped, while a growing number of specialist sports academies offer an even greater focus on games. What separates Millfield from the pack, he insists, is its ethos - and its emphasis on providing the balance best suited to each pupil. When that’s achieved, he says, success follows.

“A lot of people seem to have a perception of Millfield, that every child runs around with aspirations of becoming a professional sports person, which isn’t the case at all. We make it very clear to new parents that what their son or daughter’s getting is a rounded education full of different opportunities, and we’ll then use our programme to make sure they’re challenged at an appropriate level on whatever path it is, be it sports, music or arts.”

Millfield doesn’t possess the rosiest reputation for its academic prowess, tending to place lowly in annual league tables – a ranking system Considine dismisses as largely redundant. They don’t, for instance, take into account the school’s impressive commitment to learning support. Aided by class sizes that rarely exceed 16, less academically able pupils have the potential to thrive. Old Millfieldian Chris Robshaw, former England rugby captain, credited the school with helping him overcome his dyslexia.

Despite accusations to the contrary, Millfield is not selective in any sense – academically or sporting – and insists it does not scout for promising young athletes that may otherwise be in the state sector. Instead those families tend to come to them, often applying for scholarships or bursary support that can cover anything from 15 to 100 per cent of the fees. A handful also qualify for a military discount, meaning it isn’t only mega-rich parents to be found bellowing from the touchlines.

For all its Olympian alumni, Millfield hasn’t done poorly at producing star names in other areas of public life, either. Notable non-sporting Old Millfieldians include singers Lily Allen and Ella Eyre, actors Nicolette Sheridan and Alex Pettyfer, journalist John Sergeant and Labour politician Ruth Kelly.

Undoubtedly it is sport that the college is known for, however, and as is standard for most independent boarding schools, Millfield pupils complete four mandatory sessions a week, spread between Monday and Saturday. Rugby, hockey, netball, football and cricket prevail, but rather than rigidly sticking to a sport they show early promise in, students are encouraged to keep their options open and try as many disciplines as possible. Which isn’t difficult, given there’s an exhaustive 28 on offer.

It’s a point Considine is keen to emphasise as salient to Millfield’s record, pointing to the example of rower Helen Glover: a gold medallist in 2012 and overwhelming favourite again in Rio, who originally played hockey at school. Similarly, Peter Wilson, Team GB’s shooting hero four years ago, only took up the pursuit after a rugby injury playing for Millfield. Jazmin Sawyers, who will compete in the long jump this year, represented Great Britain in the bobsleigh at the Youth Winter Olympics while still in sixth form.

Overseeing the school’s huge games department is its Director of Sport, David Faulkner. A hockey gold medallist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Faulkner joined the school after the 2012 Games, where he concluded seven successful years as Performance Director with England and Great Britain Hockey. Though not a teacher himself, Faulkner says Millfield’s insistence on its promising athletes avoiding academic sacrifice is just as responsible for long-term success as any amount of strength and conditioning coaching.

“We have a thing here we call ‘performance lifestyle’,” he says. “It’s about their whole approach to life, and if a pupil has dropped off academically or had a change of attitude towards their school work, we can tell instantly by their performance in sports, which will always suffer. It’s not a case of either/or.”

The pupils are at the heart of this, and we’re aware that anything could happen that might prevent them from getting to the highest levelDavid Faulkner, Millfield Director of Sport

Considine sees communication between the sporting and academic staff as salient to each child’s development.

“Coaches often have the best insight into these kids, since they see them at their most vulnerable,” he says. “It’s one of the things that even state-funded schools could learn from, if sports are better integrated into the national curriculum. Coaches can pick up on something, then they can feed back to the pastoral staff to make sure any problems are being addressed.”

As students showing sporting promise progress through Millfield’s senior school (there is also a prep school in neighbouring Glastonbury) and commit to a chosen sport, staff will work to ensure that no lessons are missed in favour of extra-curricular activities. In the upper years, for instance, pupils are able to alter their timetables to allow for training in the morning if it’s preferred, while it’s also possible to drop a GCSE in favour of further games.

“All those changes are not an excuse to get more sport in, but instead to make sure they get to lessons,” Faulkner insists. “The pupils are at the heart of this, and we’re acutely aware that anything could happen to these young athletes that might prevent them from getting to the highest level, and that sport isn’t the be all and end all.”

This emphasis on lifestyle balance seems to have heralded an all-around improvement: last year the top 100 Upper Sixth pupils, roughly half the year, achieved 91 per cent A*-B at A-level – a far cry from the school’s “strictly for the dim” reputation of yore.

One Old Millfieldian, five-time Olympian swimmer Mark Foster, feels it was the school’s support that allowed his 22-year career to flourish.

“[Millfield] makes you push yourself and challenges you to be the best you can be. I don’t know whether I would have reached the success I have done coming from anywhere else,” he says. “What makes it a special place is that the school is geared around the individual. I’d have lessons from 9-4 and had training before and after. Everything was made as easy as possible in order to give you the best start.”

As for the future, Faulkner and Considine will be eagerly watching the results of their staff’s hard work in Rio – before starting the whole process again. After all, Tokyo’s only four years away: a new generation needs to be prepared.

“Our games programmes here are set on four-year cycles that match the Olympic schedules,” Faulkner admits. “So we’re just in the process of implementing an improved strategy for the next period to 2020. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

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