Come rain or shine, dozens of pupils stride out across the fields of an Essex school.
Crossing the finishing line, their faces grimace with the spoils of their exertion but the smiles expose the satisfaction of their efforts.
It’s a scenario that is repeated most days and weeks at Coopers Company & Coborn School in Upminster where cross country is an integral part of their sporting curriculum.
Never used as a punishment or an imposition, running is seen as a core activity in Coopers’ wide range of physical activities.
More than that, it is seen as one of the basic building blocks at the foundation of the school’s sporting success that has earned them a regular slot in the upper reaches of the country’s top 100 sporting state schools’ list.
Assistant headteacher Mark Duncan is proud of the programme that the school has grown and built up over the years based on the three tenets of creating a passion for running, providing opportunities and celebrating success to inspire others.
He explained: “We are incredibly passionate about running at Coopers' Coborn and the positive health impacts it has on students.
“For example, all year 7s complete a well-being programme in form time and the benefits of running and exercise are clearly highlighted with all completing a Cooper Run to assess their progress throughout the programme.
“Much of this passion comes from staff with two members of the PE department previously running for clubs as well as other staff throughout the school regularly competing in marathons and endurance races. This is then promoted in assemblies and newsletters to further spread the positive ethos of running.
“Furthermore, there is a staff cross country race each year on the school site which raises money for charity with nearly every student in the school cheering the staff over the finish line.
“Running is always celebrated. It is never used as a punishment in PE lessons and we regularly share social media updates of students enjoying themselves at running club and races with the hashtag #weloverunning!
“Getting the culture right is therefore the most important pillar of any successful cross country programme and I would like to think that this is something we are currently doing well here.”.
Recently Coopers’ won national honours at the English Schools’ U15 girls cross country cup, not the mention fourth place in the girls’ U13 event and third in the U13 boys’ category.
It’s the blue riband of the schools’ cross country calendar and something Mark and his team will remember for a long time.
He said: “It's really difficult to sum up the day as words can't really describe how in awe we were of the students. Myself and Helen Davies (head of PE and i/c the girls team) were both overwhelmed by the sheer effort and determination every student put in, from leaving the starting pens to crossing the finish line.
“It really showed how strong the team bonds are and how much they are prepared to give for each other and for the school. We always say 'leave everything on the course and get to that finish knowing you couldn't have given anymore.’ They certainly did just that and the results speak for themselves.
“Even though we were confident the teams were strong, I don't think either of us expected first, third and fourth place in the country - all in the same weekend.
“It was inspiring to watch and has certainly made everyone involved in CCCS sport, students and staff alike, thirsty for even more success.”
One of the keys to their cross country programme at Coopers is providing opportunities for all levels of pupils.
Mark explains: “We ensure that cross country is accessible to all levels with various opportunities to enable this to happen. Firstly, there is the annual inter-house cross country race that all students participate in.
“This covers our school field as well as local woodlands to create a varied course. Full engagement is encouraged by focusing on effort and the sense of determination for the house, and team, to make it as enjoyable as possible.
“The times from previous years are displayed before the start of each race so that students also have a target to beat and can monitor their progress throughout their time at the school. Many are amazed and so impressed by how much they improve each year.
“We also have two main extra-curricular clubs run each week that cater for different levels. A cross country club is run on a lunchtime and this involves various training sets around the local area including hill reps, interval training and tempo runs. This is generally for more advanced runners but it is open to all and up to 40 attend each week.
“Then there is an after-school fitness club which encompasses fitness games, body conditioning and (everyone's favourite) dodgeball at the end.
“By running these two clubs with slightly different focuses it really does open up running to a wider body of students and further increases participation levels.”
Beyond opportunities for all, competition is key to Coopers’ success.
Mark adds: “Over the past ten years, we have developed a comprehensive fixture list that involves races throughout the autumn and spring terms.
“These include early season shorter races at Lee Valley that serve as a perfect introduction for year 7 students to more challenging races for our older students including the excellent Knole Run at Sevenoaks and the south east schools championships at Harrow School.
“Wherever possible we aim to enter B and even C teams in order to further increase competitive opportunities and foster talent development throughout the squad.
“By keeping the fixture list full - even for senior runners - it helps to create a lifelong love of the sport as well as role models to inspire the younger students.
“In addition, we have strong links with local running clubs and regularly signpost students with potential talent to join. Wherever possible we aim to work with coaches to ensure those that are regularly competing for clubs are not over-trained or over-raced.
“We fully appreciate the hard work, and training, that the local clubs provide and are very lucky to have many of a high standard in the area.”
Cross country running in Essex schools’ is hugely popular and such is the talent available that many accomplished squads find it hard to even make it out of the county qualifiers each years.
For Coopers’, the final pillar in their excellent programme is celebrating their success as a means of inspiring others.
“This includes regular announcements in assemblies on cross country team success and sharing this with all staff in briefings,” Mark says.
“We also reward all students that participate in the annual school race with house points and certificates for those that show the most improvement each year.
“We award colours to students at the annual sports presentation evening for commitment and success in the sport. These are then worn with pride by students on their blazers.
“We have constant posts on the school social media accounts about cross country success with results and pictures. This is very well received by parents, often with over 2000 interactions per post.
“We also send regular articles to the local newspaper The Romford Recorder on our cross country success which then promotes running in the community.
“Finally, the ultimate celebration of success and commitment to the sport is by awarding the prestigious role of cross country captain to students in year 12. Each year four captains are elected (two boys and two girls) and they assist every week at the clubs, promote the sport at the annual Freshers' Fayre and also provide support at fixtures.
“They really are an inspiration to the younger students with many aspiring to be just like them in the role in the future.
“It's taken a while to get to this point but we are so proud of our cross country programme and the positive culture around running at the school. We are constantly looking for ways to develop our offering even more and the recent success has certainly inspired us to do just that.”
The secrets of our cross country success