The common perception in England is that football is for state schools and rugby is for private schools, and it wouldn’t be wrong to think that given the statistics, but in this day and age why rugby is still seen as an ‘optional extra’ in most state schools beggars belief.
Let the statistics speak for themselves; football is one of the few sports that are, as Ofsted have stated, “closest to a demographically representative split”, with around 95% of state school goers being involved in professional football, whereas Premiership rugby has about 60% of its players coming from fee paying schools. When you consider the state/private divide in terms of attendance is 93%/7% in the UK the statistics are frighteningly imbalanced between football and rugby participation at a professional level. The problem becomes all the more worrying when there are no real reasons for this divide within the two sports yet it is entirely prevalent across the country.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of schools in England and current head of Ofsted, exclaimed how “it simply cannot be right that state educated athletes are so woefully under-represented in our elite sports”, but who is going to stand up and make the change that the sport of rugby desperately needs? Teachers? The RFU? Either way someone needs to step up and ensure rugby gains a healthier representation in state schools. A statement that is, however, a lot easier said than done.
There seems to be a direct struggle between those that are trying to promote rugby in state schools and the heads of these schools not doing their duty to support participation in a healthy and competitive sporting environment. Michael Wilshaw stated that “Heads who treat competitive sport with suspicion or as an optional extra are not only denying youngsters the clear dividends that come with encouraging them to compete, they are also cementing the social inequality that holds our nation back,” but this failure can’t stem entirely from the schools and their staff. There needs to be an incentive for the teachers as much as there would be for the children, a concept that is beginning to come to fruition in Scotland.
Colin Thomson, head of youth and schools rugby at Scottish rugby, has taken it upon himself to try to amend the similar failures that are occurring in Scotland in terms of rugby participation in state schools through the cash injection they received through the BT deal. Thomson commented on the subject saying “we want to invest in schools and if that means paying teachers then so be it. But we would also envisage outside help from coaches, development officers and SVQ modern apprentices.”
This plan has the potential to reverse the trend entirely and is something that the RFU need to seriously take into consideration if they want to see changes occur; the most important thing to begin the process, however, is that each party is willing to cooperate and support one another in order to achieve these desired outcomes.
The RFU need to establish stronger links between schools and clubs and promote the sport through new schemes. Teachers need to be more willing to teach these sports but equally receive the support they need and deserve to ensure it’s done effectively. Arguably, professional players have an obligation to go out there and simply motivate kids to get involved and educate them more about rugby and the importance of immersing yourself in competitive environments for future development.
This struggle, particularly as safety worries in schoolboy rugby have become even more widespread, will be a tough task to overcome. It seems highly apparent that the biggest factor behind private/ state school participation in rugby being so diverse is the wrong attitude from the children, the teachers and the governing bodies in England. Steps, however, are being made and as cohesion between teachers, students, professionals and the RFU begins to develop progress will occur. It does feel as though each party is fighting the battle on their own and currently this is probably not far from the truth, but with this suggestion of collective support the process should become a far less daunting one.
Colin Thomson has guaranteed that “where we’ve invested in state schools we’ve seen good results,” so now we need to instigate these changes and reflect them within the English schools system. It won’t be an easy feat by any stretch, but changes have to be made not just to promote the sport of rugby and potentially open up a whole new window of potential stars, but to allow kids to learn the importance of team sports such as rugby and to encourage a healthy existence both physically and psychologically.