Few sports highlight the gaping gulf between state and independent schools like hockey.
While many independent schools have access to the best state-of-the-art facilities, pitches and coaching, state schools often have to train on playgrounds or muddy grass.
And unless they have a keen hockey teacher among their staff or access to a great local club, they are unlikely to get a foothold in the sport let alone thrive.
It doesn’t help either that England Hockey appear unique among national governing sport bodies in still charging schools for reaching the regional and national stages of their age-group competitions.
But all is not doom and gloom. One state school at least is fighting back against the great schools’ hockey divide.
Katharine Lady Berkeley’s School, in the pretty market town of Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, is currently enjoying a recent revival that has seen them rack up a series of impressive performances under England Hockey’s new tiered competition system.
Their U14 boys are national tier two champions while their U14 and U16 girls reached the tier two western region semi-finals.
And in the U13 competitions, where there were no national finals, both their boys’ and girls’ teams won the tier two western regions. It all brings a big smile to the face of head of PE Richard Daniel.
He explained: “The school used to have a very strong tradition of field hockey when it was played on grass back in the late eighties and early nineties. However there was a dramatic decline at the school as clubs and schools invested in astro turf pitches, which the school did not have the funding for.
“Teaching hockey on grass and tennis courts continued for many years, but the school fell behind others lucky enough to have specialist facilities.
“The development of a sand-based astroturf as part of a joint venture scheme with the local community was the starting point for the development of hockey at the school, coupled with a new generation of teaching staff at the school who were enthusiastic and committed to raising the status of hockey and returning to levels reached in the past.
“Wotton-under-Edge is a hockey town and Katharine Lady Berkeley’s School plays an important part of that community.”
A combination of specific in-house programmes and excellent school-club links have contributed to success, according to Richard.
He said: “We have doubled the amount of lesson time students get for hockey at key stage three and we run extensive after-school hockey sessions for all age groups throughout the year.
“We have introduced a summer hockey league which now attracts 200 students each week, culminating in our summer hockey finals night, where former student Simon Mason (who has more than 100 British caps) presents the awards.
“We also have a fantastic relationship with two local clubs, most notably Wotton-under-Edge Hockey Club who are based at the school site with joint use of the astro.
“They have a great junior section and we work closely with them not only with player development but also umpiring and coaching professional development courses. We are also very fortunate to have Yate Hockey Club close by providing an equally impressive junior programme.”
At the heart of the school’s hockey revival is their dedicated staff and focused pupils – even though Richard admits it will be hard to compete against the best teams in the country.
He explained: “There is no comparison when it comes to time, budget or facilities available when comparing the delivery of hockey in the state and private sectors.
“Outside of PE lessons, the entire hockey programme at Katharine Lady Berkeley’s is delivered at the school at the end of the school day.
“Training and fixtures have to squeeze into a very small window to cater for the different age groups and multiple teams we attempt to run. Unlike many schools we do not have specialist hockey coaches coming in to help, just a dedicated team of PE teachers, who juggle coaching hockey teams alongside examination classes and an extensive programme of other sports offered at the school.
“Excellent teaching is fundamental in fostering a love and passion for any sport. We are so fortunate here to have a dedicated team of PE staff who are not only skilled teachers but passionate enthusiastic members of staff that inspire the students they teach.
“We are very fortunate that our older students are keen to give up their time to help inspire the next generation of players, regularly giving up their time to support coaching and umpiring the younger age groups.
“Not only are they excellent role models for the younger students, they also bring fresh ideas along to sessions from their experiences of playing and training with high level club hockey.”
Competitive matches and competitions are key to continued success at schools like Katharine Lady Berkeley’s.
“As a genuinely comprehensive state school, our priority is that all students are offered an equal opportunity to train and play for school teams regardless of ability,” Richard adds.
“Participation is, and always will be, our number one priority. We regularly run A, B, C and D teams up to U13 level for both boys and girls. We consider this the greatest measure of success for us as a school.
“However the very nature of sport, and motivation for many, is the desire to win. Leaning to accept defeat and be gracious in victory teaches students important lessons. Be it in a house hockey competition or national finals, the values and sportsmanship we encourage remain the same.”
Looking ahead, Richard hopes other state school can follow in their footsteps – with the help of England Hockey of course.
He explains: “We are quite unique in being a state school that offers a full boys’ hockey programme. But at present every fixture we play is against private schools.
“For many schools, their biggest hurdle to progress is the lack of facilities. However, for most, the biggest barrier is the lack of a hockey culture in the school.
“Football, and to some extent rugby, dominate both curriculum PE and extra-curricular sport at many schools, which are often limited in either time or staff expertise. Introducing an extra sport at time when budgets are being squeezed and ever-increasing workloads for staff does little to support the situation.
“What we would like to do is continue developing as members of staff through training and the sharing of good practice.
“We’d also like to develop our fixture list to include more stronger hockey playing schools. Time and facilities permitting, we would love to introduce indoor hockey to make it a year-round sport at the school. But at present there are some barriers to us doing this.
“The introduction of the national tiering system by England Hockey looks, in principle, to be an excellent way of promoting hockey in schools.
“It is essential that “emerging” schools are supported by the national governing body to help develop a culture of hockey within schools. Accessible training and long-term support is the only way that they will initiate change and see a real impact.”
Fighting back against the great schools’ hockey divide