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Rugby in English schools: still an elitist sport Posted about 4 years ago

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A recent report from Ofsted, England’s education watchdog, highlighted a battle just as important as any that Stuart Lancaster’s side will face at next year’s Rugby World Cup.

‘Going the extra mile: Excellence in competitive school sport’, commissioned in order to investigate why so many Team GB athletes at the 2012 Olympics came from private rather than state schools, reveals the alarming percentage of elite athletes that come from the independent sector and no sport has a greater number of privately-educated players than rugby union.

Sixty-one percent of the English players plying their trade in the Aviva Premiership paid for some or all of their education. This fact is all the more concerning when you consider that 93% of children go through the state school system.

In the words of Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector or schools, “Outside of football, a disproportionately high number of athletes…honed their talent on the fields and in the sports halls of England’s independent schools.”

Rugby is not alone here with the survey highlighting that independent schools produced a third of the elite athletes surveyed and when football is removed from the equation then this figure rises to what Wilshaw described as a ‘ridiculous’ 50%. “It simply cannot be right that state educated athletes are so woefully under-represented in our elite sports,” insisted Wilshaw

This will come as no surprise to the majority of those involved in the game be it as a player, coach, fan or governing body. It is also an issue that the Rugby Football Union will be painfully aware of and they have been working hard to redress the balance as part of their efforts to ensure next year’s World Cup leaves a lasting legacy.

The All Schools initiative, that champions the RFU’s core values of teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship, was launched in 2012 and is a key part of their plans to boost participation to unprecedented levels and avoid the kind of criticism aimed at Olympic officials by those who insist the enthusiasm that enveloped the Games failed to reach state schools.

The All Schools programme was devised to increase the amount of rugby played in secondary schools and to encourage new players to join local clubs. The RFU claims that 1,500 state secondary schools currently play competitive rugby union and they are determined to help 750 more introduce the sport by the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

But they insist this is not just about expanding what is already the largest talent pool in the world. They proudly claim to be ‘investing in schools, communities and society’ and cite recent research indicates that rugby-playing schools achieve better exam results and that playing rugby also makes a positive difference to the attitude and behaviour of teenagers out of school.

The wider benefits are also recognised by the Ofsted report that states, “the real value of competitive sport is the positive effect it has on education. Schools that win on the field win in the exam hall.”

This point may well be of interest to those who have queried the RFU’s insistence on removing competitive element of minis rugby.

Although the RFU are highly unlikely to admit it, social benefits are just a welcome by-product with the real goal the engagement of those players, coaches, referees, fans and volunteers that will drive the development of the game in the years to come. The sport knows its potential is limited until it breaks out from its traditional strongholds.

Unfortunately the RFU, even with its unrivalled riches, cannot win this battle alone.

Many of those who defied the odds and were introduced to the game via the state school system, including yours truly, will tell you that it was the enthusiasm of a particular teacher, and their willingness to go above and beyond their job description, that ignited a passion for the sport.

Little appears to have changed in the last 20 years with the Ofsted report highlighting that the state schools excelling at sport rely on teachers prepared to dedicate time and energy before, during and after school, as well as at weekends.

There is hope with the report finding some schools bucking the trend and demonstrating that “high school fees and large playing fields are not a pre-requisite to success" and a healthy number of the current England squad are products of the state system.

Players such as Manu Tuilagi, Chris Ashton, Dan Cole and Geoff Parling have all emerged that way and reports suggest there is a 50-50 split within the current squad but given the magnitude of the state system it really should produce many more players than the private sector.

Financial resources are also clearly a key issue with private schools often boasting facilities that not only state schools but also some professional outfits can only dream of – but even more important, according to Wilshaw, is ‘the commitment and leadership of the head teacher’.

The RFU is attempting to show them the way and lead as best as it can with stronger ties with local clubs and coaches also being encouraged but it appears rugby union is set to continue to struggle with its elitist reputation for some time yet.

What do you think the RFU can do to increase the playing opportunity at state schools? Do you teach at, or did you play rugby at, a state school, what was your experience? What can the UK can learn from other country’s playing structures?

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Graham Jenkins is a freelance sports journalist who has been reporting around the rugby globe for over 20 years. A former editor of the leading rugby union website Scrum.com, he is a veteran of five World Cups and cites England’s 2003 triumph as the most memorable moment of his professional career - closely followed by a night out with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal.

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